Published on December 12th, 2013 | by Damien Straker
American Hustle – Film Review
Reviewed by Damien Straker on December 13th, 2013
Roadshow presents a film by David O. Russell
Written by David O. Russell and Eric Singer
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Robert De Niro
Running Time: 138 minutes
Release Date: December 12th, 2013
Director David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle (originally titled American Bullshit) is hilarious chaos. It captures some of the same manic energy as Silver Linings Playbook, mostly through its stunning performances, but it is also scattered in its narrative and storytelling. Some people have compared the film to the style of Scorsese’s crime work, like Goodfellas. I don’t think it has the precision of that film but what it excels at is a very engaging character study of a criminal network of people, determined to be far more than what they are. Though it is set in the 1970s, the characterisations of its con artist characters and its dialogue quips about the state of the economy forge meaningful parallels to the post-GFC climate of America today. Beneath its sometimes messy and undisciplined narrative is a crime-comedy about the ugly side of the American Dream: greed, status and self-importance.
Christian Bale features as Irving Rosenfeld, a conman who runs a laundromat but is also ripping people off with a money lending business and art forgery. He lives away from his young, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and their son and instead he finds himself in a relationship with his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams). Sydney used to be an exotic dancer but wants to be something more and uses a false English accent to scam people. When they’re busted by the police they’re put to work by a hyperactive FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) who wants to work a big operation and bring down a corrupt politician in Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is intent on rebuilding Atlantic City. Yet the operation grows increasingly dangerous and elaborate, leading to the involvement of a fake Sheik (played by Michael Pena), who is actually Mexican and speaks minimal Arabic, and a dangerous gangster (Robert De Niro in a fun cameo role).
One of the attractions of the overloaded but witty script by the director himself and co-writer Eric Singer is that it is never short on insight into the motives of the characters and unifying these ideas into a theme of personal ambition. As a boy, Irving would smash windows so that he would generate business for his father’s windows business, showing the legacy of unethical financial viability in his life. Also significant to his character is a long opening sequence where in the present he is fat and balding and he spends a great amount of time adjusting his hair piece and combing it so that he has the appearance of a much tidier man. It is metaphorical for not just the deceptiveness of his business practices but the way other character’s posture too. The dialogue characterises them as not only ambitious but conscious of the power of perception and the way people believe what they want to believe in reaching their dreams.
Both the characters of Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper also strive to improve their lives too. Adams is shown briefly as a stripper, which instils a blind, single-mindedness that her scam work will provide a higher status and true happiness. She powerfully tells Irving: “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything”. Cooper’s character Richie is a loopy control freak. He is engaged and still lives at home with his mother, determining his motives for wanting to stage an elaborate heist so that he can be famous and earn a promotion. The one character who seems comfortable with themselves is Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn, but this is another form of blindness because she is manic, irresponsible and rash, which welcomes some delicious scenes where her unpredictable behaviour threatens to derail some of the missions. Yet there is also a poignant moment where she begs someone not to hurt Irving as he is still the father of her son.
The film only needed some trimming in how it presents a lot of this information. Parts of the narrative are flabby and convoluted and the exposition rushed. The film is also too long, with several montages padding out the running time to over two hours, while a surprise end twist emerges from nowhere. David O. Russell relies dominantly on voice over in the early portions of the film to flesh out the motives and character attractions so important contextual details and exposition points, like the flashbacks to their pasts, are hastily drawn.
Fortunately, when David O. Russell focuses the camera on the faces of the actors he draws career best performances from them. Both Bale and Bradley Cooper have hysterical verbal sparring contests and maximise their screen time with delicious comic energy that is so infectious and fun to watch and listen to. Their dialogue is frequently hilariously and demonstrates sharp comic timing. Under his dark aviator sunglasses, Bale also injects subtle, internalised moments of remorse when he realises he will be destroying Carmine’s family. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence both bring forcefulness to their roles, generating a tornado of hysteria and comedy to some scenes that is on occasions electrifying and tense. Lawrence’s presence and ability to hold a scene almost singularly is hair raising and scarily confident.
Although the film doesn’t have the same amount of satisfaction and sheer joy of the director’s last film, it doesn’t rest on its star power alone either. Each of the characters and their relationship to one another is integral to the film’s thematic goal: the dissection of the American dream, where people will willingly trample one another to get ahead of the curve in troubled economic downtime and the effect this has on families. The film is at its best when these goals and desires clash head-on, spearheaded by enormously charismatic actors and a script’s verbal wit that overrides its untidiness.
Summary: It captures some of the same manic energy as Silver Linings Playbook, mostly through its stunning performances.