What a whirlwind. Promising at the start that “some of this actually happened” the latest film from Three Kings, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook director David O’Russell takes its cue from the 1970s ABSCAM sting operation and spins it into a tale of performance, escapism and love. I think. It does this whilst following an intricate series of cons made by a confidence man (Christian Bale) and his partner/lover (Amy Adams) under the watchful eye of an ambitious federal agent (Bradley Cooper) who has effectively entrapped them into helping him catch some very powerful and public figures. Among them is a basically decent New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) who is also pursued by Cooper but has an eye on taking some illegally gained money and rebuilding a series of casinos in Atlantic City in a bid to provide employment for his loyal constituency. Rounding out the main cast Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s wildly unpredictable and mentally unstable wife who throws herself into the convoluted operation.
Oozing seventies nostalgia from the stylized opening logos and operating within the highly glamorised scuzz of unlikable feds, confidence players and eventually mob bosses Russell’s film bears more than a passing resemblance to Martin Scorsese epics like Goodfellas and Casino. There’s even a brief and menacing supporting turn from Robert De Niro evocative of the unhinged Jimmy Conway from the former. There’s also a lot of voice over from crooks explaining the who, where and whys of their morally dubious but successful practices. Those comparisons make American Hustle feel a little like a light-weight companion but for two perfect performances from Christian Bale and Amy Adams and excellent supporting work from Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence. Pulling the strings on the operation Bradley Cooper sells his slimy and ambivalent federal agent with relish.
It’s the opening fifteen minutes where we meet Bale and Adam’s star crossed, meant to be lovers that the real success of the film is established. While Russell and his co-writer Eric Warren Singer do an admirable job navigating the convoluted world of ABSCAM the central love story between Bale and Adams hustlers makes the film. A simple look of vulnerability, longing, passion even fatigue at pretending to be somebody else hangs over an early, tremendously touching encounter between the pair (in a laundry room no less). After that relationship is threatened and Bale returns to the same scene later on, alone and near defeat, my heart went out for the man. This is a great performance, reminiscent in his physical transformation (time and time again from American Psycho to The Machinist to Batman and Rescue Dawn and The Fighter and now here) to a prime piece of work from De Niro whose own presence here highlights the parallel. It’s a beautiful performance elevating the woes of what is ultimately a disreputable and opportunistic swindler into something truely affecting.
As his partner Amy Adams also finds the center of a lost, isolated and unhappy figure who wants to put away the accents and costumes and trade bullshit for reality. Burning with sex appeal (we’re a long way away from Lois Lane) and alternating between a false British accent and her characters Albuquerque dialect Adams work in this vivid and moving invention is superb. Aside from the central love story and its astutely observed theme of self deception, disguises and role-playing Russell throws a lot of cast (Lois. C. K., De Niro, Michael Peña, an old Three Kings cohort, Boardwalk Empire alumni Shea Wigham and Jack Huston and more pop up in the background), swagger and hair styles at the screen. It all mostly works but without the heavyweight emotional impact one might expect from a film that appears to be deeply involved in awards season.
On the topic of award season it’s slightly disappointing to see Jeremy Renner unanimously ignored after turning wholehearted decency into something hugely compelling with his work here. Playing a politician who is willing to get involved with questionable business associates but with nothing more than the singular goal of helping his community. Crucially he also sells his characters integrity and invaluably real friendship to Bale who comes to cherish a microwave oven gift from his new friend and hate himself for his attempt to entrap him to save his and his lovers skins. Here is the second crucial relationship in American Hustle and the stakes involved between Bale and Renner provide the film with its only other source of genuine emotional involvement.
For those three performances alone American Hustle is worthwhile. Added into the mix is a fiery turn by Jennifer Lawrence who again plays an emotionally and slightly mentally unhinged woman for Russell. Her rendition of Live and Let Die alone is preety remarkable. More substantially her characters similar need to escape an artificial world built from a dysfunctional and failing marriage gives her role a resonance that while not remotely potent as Bale, Adams or Renners’ characters respective arcs still serves to showcase the ridiculous embarrassment of acting riches at Russell’s disposal. Playing the least interesting central character in the story-by a mile-Bradley Cooper brings his not too loathsome and not terribly sympathetic lawman to life. Less well drawn than his fellow leads Cooper plays an asshole with conviction and a commitment to tight curls and is mildly entertaining in scenes that require him to be overly sexed up, drugged up and comically aggressive towards his direct superior (played by Lois C.K.).
When all of these constituent elements are put together American Hustle emerges as a frequently engaging motion picture that escapes tedium and a gnawing threat of underwhelming results thanks to the stellar acting on display. See it for the performances.