David O Russell is a curious director as far as Hollywood star trajectory goes. 15 years ago he made the excellent Three Kings and then followed it up five years later with the strange and low key comedy I Heart Huckabees that few people cared for. He did nothing for another five years and then all of a sudden he struck gold and became a hit machine, pumping out three critically acclaimed, high profile films in a row – The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle. It seems that only at the age of fifty has Mr Russell begun to hit his stride.
American Hustle is a film that is as much about style as it is about substance. To that end, its probably one of the most polarizing films out of the Academy Award’s Best Picture nominees for 2014. Set in New Jersey in the Seventies, the film is visually distinctive with the crazy hairstyles, the loud costumes and the jaw-jacking Jersey natives dropping one liners on one another.
Christian Bale is virtually unrecognizable as the fat, balding con artist Irving. Irving’s stock and trade is scamming gullible investors out of their money. He meets and falls in love with Sydney (Amy Adams) who becomes his partner in crime. Irving wants Sydney to become his partner in life also but things are complicated as he is married to the feisty and troublesome Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). To make matters worse, he unwittingly attempts to scam an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who uses his leverage over Irving to try and ensnare a corrupt Mayor. Richie also falls in love with Sydney who decides it would be advantageous to her situation to return his affection. This messy love quadrangle and crime caper where Irving and Richie are working together but only for their own interests is the twisted web on which the narrative rests.
With so many betrayals and shifts in power during the 140 minutes of running time, its possible to lose track of who is playing who and if that happens, you can still get by and enjoy the film for the spectacle of so many distinguished actors hamming it up and playing off one another. Having said that, the film does not end with any ambiguity and looking back on the story after the credits rolled, I determined that the film is complicated but not incoherent. There is a clear chain of events and definites winners and losers by the end of the film.
For my money, the best reasons to watch this film are Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper. Both play their characters to the hilt, with amplified eccentricity and quirkiness in a way that I found hugely entertaining. Cooper’s turn as DiMaso is terrific because in principle he should hold all the cards but he is dim witted, in over his head and can’t seem to catch the full respect that he feels he is entitled to. One of my favourite tropes that gets subverted in this film is when DiMaso feels he has cracked the case with a hot lead and then when he dramatically calls for additional back up with his FBI boss, he is turned down due to budgetary constraints.
The only mistep in the film for me is Jennifer Lawrence who is cast as Irving’s estranged and unhappy wife Rosalyn. Lawrence is too youthful and too attractive to play this part. Even though she turns up the obnoxious behavior an extra notch to sell the role, I think she is simply miscast and strains the audience’s credulity in the dynamics of their marriage. You can’t tell me that they couldn’t find a genuine, orange-skinned, leather-faced middle aged Jersey Shore princess to fill the part?
American Hustle is a fun, loud and sprawling crime caper film. I don’t think it will live long in the memory the way some of the other Best Picture nominees this year will (12 Years A Slave, The Wolf Of Wall Street) but it shows just how industrious and talented David O Russell has become in recent times. He has now produced three year Best Picture contenders in four years. An incredible achievement. What comes next?