Perhaps it’s a wee bit unfair to measure up David O. Russell’s hyperactive con-and-crime caper American Hustle all too soon since it’s been lobbed on us during a period of the year where we stuff our faces with turkey in gluttonous proportions and down alcohol in hedonistic volumes, perfectly mirroring excess and our excitable mood when it comes to festive films. So here’s my late review when everyone has sobered up and has thrown kitsch out of the window. I liked American Hustle, and I like it even more, retrospectively. That’s saying a lot, since I’m not really a fan of Russell’s work. He’s one of Hollywood’s most overrated directors, recycling leftover pulp and genre clichés and amp then up to near-bombastic and ridiculously frantic levels, deceiving you with his overt camera tricks masquerading as ‘virtuoso’ when at closer inspection, they’re all derivative. The point I’m making is clearly illustrated in Russell’s previous work, the terribly titled cop-out that was Silver Linings Playbook, which was nothing more than a cinematically anaemic romcom with bipolar issues and undeserving its multiple Oscar nominations except for Jennifer Lawrence’s turn. American Hustle, meanwhile, is arguably a far better film – deliriously snappier, weightier and even meatier with enough juicy roles for the lead actors to squeeze the hell out of.
You can accuse Russell for ripping the 1990’s Scorcese off, with Goodfellas and Casino‘s fingerprints all over Hustle‘s stylistic hood. You can even throw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights in the mix, and make things much harder for Russell to shake off his influences. But at least he’s firing all his cyclinders, executing Hustle with such infectious energy and near-lunatic abandon, throwing the 70’s milieu of big hair, disco-ball and blindingly over-the-top fashion into a blender that’s spinning absurdly fast and loose that it’s almost hard not to watch it with strange fascination. In fact, Russell’s style threatens to bowl things over, including its central narrative about a pair of con artists in a game of double-cross dealings with the FBI, shady politicians and East Coast mobsters. Russell’s cinematography refuses to sit still, in constant motion as slippery as its characters in a film with no one to trust. Everyone seems to be deceiving and scamming everybody else in a plot that gets increasingly convoluted, defying clear-cut explanation.
The underlying exposé about America’s systematic corruption has been tackled before and better in myriad other films, but American Hustle sustains some dizzy entertainment throughout that you’d hardly care about the clusterfuck of entanglements since you’re having so much fun. And the major attribute to this dazzling fun is the quarter of performances that glue this film together – Christian Bale’s typically superb turn as the bald-headed, pot-bellied con-man Irving Rosenfeld, Amy Adams’ feisty and ferocious stripper-turned-cleavage-busting partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser, whose improvised alter-ego posh British Lady Edith Greensley is such a hoot, Bradley Cooper’s over-eager and gullible federal agent with a crusade in bribing and exposing politicians, and finally Jennifer Lawrence’s impossibly cranked up role as Irving’s unhinged housewife, a type of woman who would chew a scenery with relish and subsequently blowing everything for everybody halfway through her endless talk about manicured nails. The weakest link is Jeremy Renner, who’s pitifully miscast as the New Jersey mayor, a role that seems to belong to a better, older actor. But that hardly matters when the main ensemble puts the film on fire, setting American Hustle ablaze with some anarchic showmaking that might be Russell’s most enjoyable work to date.
DIRECTOR: David O. Russell | CAST: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert de Niro | SCREENPLAY: Eric Singer, David O. Russell | DISTRIBUTOR: Entertainment Film Distributors | RUNNING-TIME: 138 mins | GENRE: Crime/Drama | COUNTRY: USA