There are pleasures to be had in this brash, '70s-set comic thriller, even if it's all one big bogus boogie night
Film Title: American Hustle
Director: David O Russell
Starring: Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C K, Jack Huston
Running Time: 129 min
David O Russell lays out his stall in the opening scene of this entertaining, undisciplined thriller set among large-collared confidence tricksters. The picture begins with Christian Bale arranging an extravagant comb-over before pulling on the sort of stunt costume that, if contemporary film-makers are to be believed, wrapped themselves around every adult in the years between Woodstock and the Moscow Olympics.
American Hustle focuses on an FBI sting that unearthed modest levels of political corruption during the late 1970s. It has some interesting things to say about the ambiguities such investigations throw up: the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner) makes moral compromises for the benefit of his constituents, not personal gain. A few of the characters pass through diverting narrative arcs. But even before spotting one of the absurdly revealing cleavages on Amy Adams’s many comedy frocks, the viewer will have deduced what the film is really about: cinema’s continuing, exhausting fetishisation of the 1970s.
At no other period of Hollywood’s history has the industry found any earlier era quite so hilarious. The wigs are aggressive. The shirts are deafening. Sexual fidelity is negotiable. How long will it be, you wonder, before the characters strut down a corridor to the strains of an FM classic? About five minutes, as it happens. Steely Dan’s sleek Dirty Work provides the slippery rhythms.
The endless obsession with that epoch stems, in part, from the achievements of US film-makers in the years following Easy Rider. Not a director who leaves distinctive fingerprints, Russell follows up Sliver Linings Playbook with a film that seems deeply in love with high Scorsese. Yet American Hustle is criminally short on Scorsese’s trademark energy and interest in character. The camera rarely surges. The plot meanders more often than it hurtles. Most damagingly, Russell and his writers never really get beneath the wide lapels, crushed velvet and exploded-hedgerow haircuts.
Bale is solid as Irving Rosenfeld, a low-end financial conman. Adams pulls some femme fatale shapes as Sydney, his lover and chief accomplice. But both are playing types rather than personalities. Much justifiable praise has already gone the way of Jennifer Lawrence for her turn as Bale’s unreliable wife, Rosalyn. Ms Lawrence is certainly engagingly daffy: her character’s inability to follow safety regulations on a microwave oven (more 1970s reference-porn) triggers a properly hilarious conflagration. Rosalyn is, however, little more than a mobile treatise on the classic Hollywood scatterbrain: Judy Holliday 101.
All that noted, it can’t be denied that there is much fun to be had here.
The picture begins with Irving and Sydney setting up a slick scam flogging largely non-existent loans to desperate business people. They are soon fingered by the Feds, in the person of Agent Bradley Cooper, and persuaded to assist efforts to investigate suspected bribery among senators, congressmen and municipal officials. Investigations into the rebuilding of Atlantic City as a gambling resort end up taking up much of their time.
Loosely based on the true-life tale of the Abscam operation, American Hustle abounds with good scenes. The team’s commendably tense negotiation with a top hoodlum (played by an uncredited star, whose identity probably constitutes one of these “spoilers” everyone now cares so much about) features a striking narrative switchback that promises further delicious twists to come.
Unfortunately, Russell completely bungles the film’s final reveal. After nearly two and a half hours being lead in one direction, we are hurriedly informed that something else has been going on all along and unceremoniously flung into the foyer.
Though never boring, American Hustle does itself feel a little like a con – a skilled exercise in creative misdirection. Fair enough. If you enjoy the fancy ruffles and fans, you may not mind that the pack is missing an ace of spades.