Sometimes movies arrive in Australian cinemas on the back of intense critical acclaim and it can be difficult to reconcile the hyperbole with the reality of what you see. Often it seems that the involvement of a flavour-of-the-month director or the procurement of several A-list stars automatically renders the film something special regardless of whether the actuality of what transpires on screen justifies such exaltation. The most recent case in point is American Hustle, the latest offering from director David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter) that brings Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence together for a convoluted crime comedy set in 1970’s New Jersey based, albeit somewhat loosely it would seem, on the Abscam scandal in which several politicians were netted in a FBI corruption sting.
Bale plays fraudster Irving Rosenfeld, the owner of several legitimate businesses who also sidelines in various cons, including the sale of stolen and forged artworks. When Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Adams), the two set up an elaborate scam by posing as an international finance and investment firm targeting those unable to secure loans through more conventional means. However, soon enough, the feds stumble upon their ruse and, faced with jail time, the pair agree to assist hapless FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) in his efforts to snare much bigger targets, including a New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Renner), an ostensibly decent guy with a genuine passion for his constituency whose downfall is an unfortunate by-product of DiMaso’s ambition. Even Rosenfeld feels bad at having lured Polito into the scam with the promise of great prosperity for the community he represents. As Prosser, Adams uses her feminine wiles to manipulate both Rosenfeld and DiMaso and it is these currents of love and jealousy that trigger the endless attempts at one-upmanship by the two men from which most of the humour is borne.
However, complicating matters further are Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and young son Danny. A needy, vulnerable force of nature, Rosalyn is seemingly oblivious to much of what is going on around her but ultimately plays a significant role in how the sordid mess unfolds. She appears unhinged and unpredictable, yet you can’t help but feel that beneath the fake tan, piled hair, glossed nails and rat-a-tat-tat verbal outbursts is a more calculating character just biding her time and waiting for a better opportunity to come her way, which may just be in the form of gangster associate Pete Musane (Jack Huston). Rosalyn is a scene-stealer and Lawrence further cements her reputation as the actress of the moment with her second great performance for Russell following her Academy Award-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook.
Everything about this film is over the top; from the costumes to the hairstyles to the brazen nature of the various schemes, which ultimately involve a fake Arabian investor (Michael Pena) and Robert De Niro’s Miami mafia boss Victor Tellegio, whose sinister tone has both Rosenfeld and DiMaso panicking at the thought of what they have got themselves into. Although a very small role, it is great to see De Niro doing something that doesn’t require him to make a fool of himself and besmirch his reputation as, quite possibly, the best actor of his generation. Also making an appearance is comedian Louis C.K as DiMaso’s boss Stoddard Thorsen, a man who sees DiMaso as both arrogant and delusional in equal measure, while Alessandro Nivola is almost unrecognisable as ambitious Chief Prosecutor Anthony Amado.
With facial hair and cleavage aplenty, Russell has certainly captured the essence of the era and, overall, the film works as an entertaining examination of America in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. Make no mistake, American Hustle is a film with hidden depths but lacks the emotional punch needed to elevate it beyond mere entertainment to something altogether more powerful. It draws very much on the movies of Scorsese without reaching the same heights as his best work. As impressive as much of this is – perhaps more so some of the performances than anything else – it is certainly hard to believe that it sits atop so many ‘Best of’ lists for the year, let alone being a major contender through awards season. Yes, it is good, but it’s not that good.