Director David O. Russell strikes again with another darkly comedic and original take on a genre film set to a zesty score by Danny Elfman. Loosely based on the F.B.I. ABSCAM operation in the 1970’s, the film centres on renamed con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) as they are blackmailed by ambitious F.B.I. agent Ritchie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into helping him prosecute a number of corrupt politicians in New York City. Another of O. Russell’s character-based and wittily written pieces destined for the Oscars, American Hustle follows typical ‘heist film’ conventions, with the more historically ignorant members of the audience required to guess who’s conning who throughout.
While a shakily overactive plot threatens the flow of narrative and over-complicates much of the story, O. Russell’s A-list cast holds focus with extremely good performances from both of the female leads, perhaps bagging Jennifer Lawrence a second Oscar following the one she received for her previous performance in O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. However, Amy Adam’s portrayal of neurotic intelligence and vulnerability as Rosenfeld’s other woman drives the film towards its real goal of in-depth character exploration as the audience is granted access to the very human romance between the con-man and his mistress. This relationship is given resonance by the narrative style: Irving’s voiceover during a flashback of him meeting Sydney is interrupted by Sydney’s own voiceover. This interweaving innovatively conveys both parties’ love for each other and their shared memories, thus succeeding in emphasising the characters’ genuine affinity in a film concerned with self-delusion and deceit. Such refreshing originality in dealing with their romance is what we come to expect from O. Russell and he does not disappoint.
This exploration of the human psyche is taken further as O. Russell creates tense moral ambiguity throughout the film, choosing to vilify the law and create sympathies with corrupt politicians and mendacious con artists. What links American Hustle most to O. Russell’s previous films, however, is its uplifting core. While sometimes dark, and dealing with very mature and disturbing psychological matters, American Hustle is still a film about bettering oneself and finally achieving happiness, despite the moral ambiguities that allow both con- (wo)man and conned to dupe and be duped with some ambiguity surrounding ambition and greed. This is examined carefully in Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Angelo Errichetti (renamed Carmine Polito), who was persecuted for receiving bribes. However, O. Russell takes an original approach to this perception by having Polito shown as a selfless and sympathetic character, who involves himself in the situation to order to create jobs for the unemployed and impoverished people of his constituency.
Another of the film’s strengths is its impeccable period feel. Set in the late 1970’s, every detail is checked to confirm the decade, from a retro soundtrack to detailed interior design, make-up, hairstyles and costumes, including the use of camera pans and zooms reminiscent of new Hollywood filmmaking, especially those applied by, say, Scorsese in Goodfellas. It can safely be said that if the film only wins one Academy Award, it must surely be for the costume designer Michael Wilkinson’s excessive incorporation of sequins, velvet and big hair! Another example of the film’s romance with the 70s is the hilarious inclusion of a microwave, or ‘science’ oven, which Polito gifts Rosenberg, only for his wife to later accidently blow up.
Overall, O. Russell’s latest instalment in his winning streak of critically acclaimed films serves to leave the audience uplifted without pandering to clichés or impossibly convenient conclusions. Much like Bale’s Rosenfeld, the film strives for happiness despite the dark themes with which it deals.