Some films hook you from the opening credits. American Hustle got me before the credits even rolled: the production company logos were done up in super-saturated ’70s style — instant catnip for a film nerd of my generation. My critical detachment was compromised. Between David O. Russell’s track record, the top-notch cast, the vintage aesthetic, the critical buzz and the totally awesome trailer, it looked like a no-brainer for near-perfection. I had to manage expectations, but I’m happy to report that it’s just about as excellent as it appears.
Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con artist who meets his scamming match in self-reinventing seductress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Just as their cons are picking up steam, they get busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who then ropes them into an ambitious plan to help him reel in bigger fish.
When I first heard of the film, I thought, “Really, another American title?” But thematically, it works: there is something quintessentially American in the characters’ poignant delusions — the line they walk between ambition and desperation. The film’s thesis, which is laid out pretty explicitly, is that all its characters are running cons — not just on their marks, but on each other and on their own selves.
It’s no surprise that Bale is great, but after all his virtuoso performances, the surprise is to see how understated he plays it here. Suspicious of Richie’s grand plans, Irving prefers to keep his scams small-time, and feels threatened and emasculated by his rival’s bravado. The way Bale’s body subtly shrivels as his character feels increasingly powerless is a tour of force, more impressive in a way than all his bravura turns to date.
Cooper is good too, as is Jennifer Lawrence in a smaller role than her Oscar-winning turn in Russell’s last film Silver Linings Playbook. The strong supporting performances from character actors keep coming — Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham and Jack Huston, Colleen Camp, it goes on and on. But the film really belongs to Amy Adams, whose face can show the subtlest emotional transformations, all while her body is subjected to the most lecherous male gaze this side of Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
With The Wolf of Wall Street coming out soon, I couldn’t help but see American Hustle as an ambitious manoeuvre to out-Scorsese Scorsese. There are a lot of Goodfellas parallels in Russell’s use of sweeping cameras, hyperactive pacing, elaborate voiceover narration, affectionate depiction of the petty criminal milieu and exciting montages set to classic tunes. There’s even an uncredited cameo, one I suppose would technically count as a spoiler to reveal, that reads like a defiant snatch at the old master’s crown. And I have to say, while Russell may not have created a masterpiece on the level of Scorsese’s best work, if you compare their recent films there’s no question that Russell is well in the lead.
The film drags a bit towards the end, and in general the plot isn’t as interesting as the themes, atmosphere or characters. But if it isn’t perfect, it’s about as close as it gets these days. ■
American Hustle opens on Friday, Dec. 20