American Hustle, the latest of David O. Russell’s experiments in interpersonal chemistry, throws together twin pairs of actor-atoms who’ve previously fizzed under the observance of this director: Christian Bale and Amy Adams from 2010’s volatile The Fighter, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from last year’s no less effervescent Silver Linings Playbook.
Those crowdpleasers described several wild mood swings, but the new film is wildly unstable in form from the off: it shapes up as a love triangle that becomes a quadrangle, then a pentangle, then just a tangle, but only after assimilating the look of a gritty, Serpico-like period crime drama, and then the slick momentum of an Ocean’s 11-style caper.
Russell decks out this expanding test area in expensively gaudy design – not since Boogie Nights has there been this much polyester and hairspray visible on screen, so much static in the air – to embellish his apparently true story: that of two medium-level New York con artists (Bale and Adams) who, in the late 1970s, found themselves recruited by an ambitious Fed (Cooper) to take down the corrupt mayor of Atlantic City.
All is never quite as it appears in a Russell movie, however, and American Hustle acknowledges as much by casting the soft, sincere-seeming Jeremy Renner as said Mayor, a boyish gladhander caught trying to make his small corner of the world a better place. That we can’t really trust any of these guys is apparent the instant Russell cuts away from Bale and Adams’ growing bond to show the former already has a girl waiting at home for him: a single mother (Lawrence) he’s been attempting to provide for.
The film, written by Russell with Eric Singer, takes great glee in besmirching the generally uneventful Jimmy Carter years, by suggesting that such graft – represented here by fake sheikhs touting suitcases full of cash – was as prevalent in the America of the late 70s as it was in the Nixon era, and as it is today; it suggests that these characters’ “empty deals” would only proliferate during the 80s and 90s, and come back to haunt us during the present banking crisis. Like it or not, everybody gets corrupted somewhere along the line.
What redeems American Hustle from its own cynicism is an inspired underlying gag. While everyone on screen has their eye on the prize, no-one has the merest semblance of control – and Russell and Singer make not just palatable but winning entertainment from the sight of characters who, skeezy as they may be, come to realise they’re actually just too nice to be sullying their hands with this kind of lowdown dirty work.
It isn’t enough now to say that Russell, once thought of as something of a pop Cassavetes, is an actor’s director: he’s a one-man Large-Hadron collider, smashing stars together to tremendous effect. These actors were surely held in isolation between takes, and then pressured to make every moment their own personal awards clip. It’s nice when they click – and they do, often, and in unpredictable ways – but collision and conflict comes to seem unavoidable.
Even the more relaxed stretches yield pleasing effects: a nice bit for comedian Louis CK as Cooper’s deskbound superior, trying desperately to impart some wisdom in the form of a story about icefishing that crystallises the film’s love of slippery, hard-to-read narratives, a marshalling of choice period soundtrack items that borders on the Scorsese-ish, and not incidentally establishes Steely Dan as cool once again.
And when the film amps up the heat – as by having Adams hold out on Cooper (doing his best impression of a man who hasn’t been laid for a really long while), or introducing the Mob in the form of a surprise element from Russell’s recent back catalogue – it starts pinging and sparking at another level entirely. Some films don’t require a star rating, but a Geiger counter – and American Hustle registers as mostly off-the-scale.
(MovieMail, December 2013)
American Hustle screens on Channel 4 this Sunday at 1.05am.