With 10 Oscar nominations, David O. Russell’s new film, American Hustle, emanates pure style. Based on the 1970s FBI Operation Abscam, it draws on the story of a New Jersey conman forced into bribing officials with the pretence of a sheikh. Yet American Hustle’s strengths lie not in the plot, but in the very human aspects of the film, the stunning performances and the outrageous necklines and wigs.
The atmosphere of the piece is enveloping as David O. Russell’s cinematography and design wrap the audience up in East Coast mob sentimentality and the trashy 70s. The film plays with themes of reinvention and not just the grand architectures of conmen but the hustles of life; the hustle of love and the fabrications of self. Christian Bale embodies Irving Rosenfeld, who is not the suave mobster one would expect, but a small time conman. With his potbelly and horrendous comb over he treads a thin line between artful deceit and idiocies. He falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who is sensuous and entirely emotional in her performance, and enrols her in his cons as she poses as British Lady Edith Greensley. Things get problematic when volatile FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) foils their ploys and ensnares them in his determined game with success in unveiling the corruption of the passionate New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Add in DiMaso’s lust for Sydney, the formation of Irv’s genuine friendship with Carmine, his truly eccentric wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), a Mexican/Arab sheikh and these plots are revealed to be not of gain but of self-preservation. The hustle to survive as each character strives for the maintenance of self and their relationships.
Although the logistics and history of the barely believable plot have been criticised and do drag on, the beauty of American Hustle is in the performances. All the actors are impeccable and entirely convincing in their characters, rousing the audience’s empathy for each of them, in equal measure. David O. Russell’s notorious dialogue is delivered beautifully, particularly by Lawrence who effortlessly draws full attention in all her scenes. She is outstanding in conveying a bubbling madness that never quite becomes farce as she portrays the desperately bitter wife who sits at home with her shopping channels and sun lamps. Scenes where she belts ‘Live and Let Die’, sweet-talks the East Coast mob and almost sets the house on fire with a ‘science oven’ (microwave) are truly exceptional. She makes us laugh even at the height of her desperation. Bale perfectly embodies the paradoxical arrogance and anxiety of Irving while Sydney’s fake British accent has a hold over him as well as Richie and the audience. Amy Adams executes her role with grace even when Sydney comes to a headlock with Rosalyn and neurotically unravels as their cons seem certainly destined to fail. Both Louis CK and Robert De Niro make appearances, as DiMaso’s uptight boss and notorious East Coast mobster respectively, which are memorable albeit brief. You can’t help thinking they should both have played more of a central role, as they leave you begging for more. Perhaps it isn’t worth 10 Oscars and perhaps the plot isn’t convincing, but the performances are. As Irving continuously tells us, “people believe what they wanna believe” and Russell’s film is not only intensely enjoyable in its back-chatting, gravelly voiceover and toupees but in it sentimental concerns with self-deception and the hustle against one another for the American Dream. The cons of every day survival entangle both the characters and the audience.
by Razz Film and Literature Correspondent, Isabelle Pitman