Film of the week: American Hustle

Long on the con artists, short on the con, David O. Russell’s expert flimflam is down with the 70s.

Kate Stables
Updated:

from our forthcoming February 2014 issue

Don’t say that you weren’t warned. “Some of this actually happened”, a title card winks at you, up front. It’s a friendly tip-off that David O. Russell’s gloriously assured, gleefully overstuffed and blackly comic take on the real-life 1970s FBI-goes-grifting Abscam operation against public corruption, will be trickier than a three-card monte. Everything is slippery in American Hustle, starting with the squabbling love triangle between goodhearted con artist Irving ‘Irv’ Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), his cautious mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the ambitious FBI agent blackmailing them into entrapping a handful of corrupt politicians using Irv’s slickly produced fake-sheikh investment scam.

While characters con each other (and themselves – Eric Warren Singer’s crisp script is clear-eyed about the self-deception behind big dreams), the film is also flim-flamming us with brio. Nothing is straightforward, least of all the storytelling. A nervy Plaza suite opening scam screeches to a botched halt, reversing silkily into an extended how-we-met flashback of romance and rooking suckers, whose narrated voiceover slips from Irv to Sydney (and eventually on to Richie) like a palmed card. But the film, like any charming bunko man, is splendidly and distractingly dressed in Carter-era finery, sporting chrome-yellow interiors, pool parties, boxy cars and giant collars – and the viewer is reduced to the role of hopeless patsy.

The 70s obsession that directors of Russell’s generation display in Boogie Nights, Blow or Almost Famous is for a lost Shangri-La of sleaze, a decade when porn, cocaine or stadium rock could make or break a man. By contrast, Russell fills his undeniably glamorous grifting movie with a wackier, slyer nostalgia, one alert to the comic possibilities of Irv’s histrionic wife Rosalyn deliberately exploding a newfangled microwave oven from sheer cussedness.

Surprisingly, his customised vision of the period sometimes resembles a tougher, coked-and Mobbed-up version of the stylised 30s adopted by con-artist films of the 70s such as The Sting and Paper Moon: a looser, chancier and infinitely more stylish era, in which decent rogues could prosper if they could turn the bad times and bad men to their own advantage.

Much of it is delivered via those narrative nuggets that R. Colin Tait neatly anatomised once in Cinephile as ‘That 70s Sequence’ – showy summarising montages set in the 70s, fluid with voiceovers, slick with slo-mo and cut to evocative tunes of the era. Russell is nifty at this, using the dry melancholy of Steely Dan’s ‘Dirty Work’ to fuel a fledgling scam and finding unexpectedly operatic possibilities in ELO’s ‘10358 Overture’ and ‘Long Black Road’, which darken the mood nicely.

Scorsese, who invented this type of potent snippet for Goodfellas and Casino, is the acknowledged master of the 70s snapshot. Russell borrows from him (and others) with a flagrant, exaggerated knowingness that elevates these tropes to new heights. When the film dives from a rowdy Scorsesean Italian-American dinner date for Irv and his mayoral ‘mark’ to Richie and Sydney strutting it at Studio 54 Saturday Night Fever-style, it suggests a filmmaker playing gleefully with borrowed identities, rather as his characters do.

This reinvention is the theme that links American Hustle’s striving scammers to Silver Lining Playbook’s made-over bipolar hero and The Fighter’s last-chance boxer, forming a loose but intriguing trilogy. Its characters are masquerading for gain, for freedom, but also for a chance at a new identity. Quick-witted Sydney transforms herself with Halston cast-offs from Irv’s dry-cleaning store into ‘Lady Edith Greensley’ because her dream was to be “anyone else other than who I was”. Dressing the part is paramount and putting the look together convincingly “from the feet up” is an art in itself.

A bittersweet sequence cutting between Richie and Sydney in matching curlers while they flirt on the phone shows the film’s eye for the telling backstage detail. Elaborate and deceptive hairstyling becomes a metaphor for the film’s shiny, perpetually shaky con. Not for nothing is the opening scene Irv’s painstaking construction of an impressive comb-over that resembles a complex crafting project. Similarly, Sydney’s peekaboo Cosmo Girl wardrobe of sleek blouses and gowns slit to the waist or the thigh is a triumph of sartorial misdirection, seducing our gaze and those of her male marks away from the mechanics of the con.

Watching Irv angrily defend his stealthy ‘small and sleek’ modus operandi (“That’s the art of becoming someone people can pin their beliefs and dreams on”) against Richie’s encroaching big ideas, he’s every inch the outraged impresario. This is a film about performance in every sense, a gloriously juicy and well-played actors’ movie, so besotted by its characters that the director eschews a set style to let the camera chase across the widescreen frames after the rowing, plotting, strutting trio at its heart.

Cooper, delivering a coke-fuelled variation of that manic quality honed in Silver Linings Playbook, is impressive but he’s outplayed here by Christian Bale’s genial Irv, whose essential decency makes him the film’s unexpected moral centre. Bale, famous for his radical physical transformations on screen, morphs seamlessly into a paunchy, middle-aged hustler. A less-is-more portrait of small, deft observations, far more skilful than The Fighter’s look-at-me Dicky, it’s a quiet pleasure in an exhilaratingly noisy movie. But it’s capped in its turn by Amy Adams’s complex Sydney, flashing effortlessly from spooked to hard-headed, from bare-faced soulmate to glossy tease, giving the movie a much-needed emotional edge.

Dysfunctional, quarrelling cohorts have been the backbone of Russell’s work since the fucked-up-family comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. Giddy with the explosive possibilities of a pinballing posse of richly textured characters, the film gradually goes long on the con artists and short on the con. While still hugely enjoyable, it becomes more of a saunter than a hustle, its middle section growing flabbier than Irv’s, in a rollicking round of bonding, dining, flirting and shouting.

No one shouts louder than Jennifer Lawrence’s toxic Rosalyn, whose super-sized performance as Irv’s wife and the scheme’s loose cannon palls as rapidly as the hackneyed it’s-the-sour-note-that-baits-the-sweet perfume theory that she personifies. If her eye-rolling scenes threaten the never-very-equal dramatic balance between the character relationships and the unfolding scam, her rash, flashy gambits nonetheless provide some pricklingly tense sequences in the last act.

Such jeopardy, however, even if augmented by Robert de Niro’s deadpan cameo as a Mafia boss fluent in Arabic, isn’t enough to offset the absence of a truly clever capper for the con. The final reversal, though neat, plausible and pleasingly just once its unwrapped, is not bravura stuff. What it needs is a pay-off of the jaw-dropping quality of say, The Sting’s ingenious win-win, or the late, lurching realisations of House of Games. What it gets is simply good-enough.

A tendency to skim the surface of the drama, propelled by fine performances and Singer’s energetic scripting, is American Hustle’s besetting flaw, then, though perhaps not a fatal one. Setting out to uncover shades of 70s greed and corruption, from FBI grandiosity to small-time swindlers via crooked congressman, it dances (albeit expertly) with its subjects rather than digging into them. Its raucous dinners and backslapping encounters, merciful Mafiosi and hilarious seductions are buoyant eye-catching elements that parade their levity as proudly as their retro trappings and aviator shades.

Like the Abscam con, the film is a convincing confection, so well played that we don’t care if it’s the real deal or not. If it’s not a masterwork, it’s a classy copy, ranking with the luminous sham-Rembrandt that Irv praises above a legitimate one, because “the guy who made this was so good that it is real to everybody”.

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