David O. Russell must feel the need to make up for lost time, after failing to get a film off the ground for a number of years following I Heart Huckabees, he’s managed to crank out three in quick succession. More surprisingly, his return with The Fighter in late 2010 saw him move into the field of awards-contender ‘prestige pictures’. That, and his two subsequent films, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle received multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Russell. Remember, this is the same man who debuted with incest comedy Spanking the Monkey.
It’s not as if his comeback films have all been particularly similar either though, American Hustle finds Russell firmly in Martin Scorsese territory. It’s a non-fiction, sprawling crime drama that opens during a dramatic, mid-point scene before taking us back to the beginning of the story. He then charts the meeting of two of the central characters, Irv (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) using explanatory voiceovers, montages and plenty of period pop music. It’s all in the vein of GoodFellas, and the Scorsese-influenced Boogie Nights (from Russell contemporary PT Anderson). While these are all good elements that Russell handles well, American Hustle often comes across as a bit of an inferior Scorsese imitation, something made more apparent by Marty’s own recent triumph with The Wolf of Wall Street.
American Hustle is a fact-based drama, but it opens with the refreshingly honest title card “some of this actually happened”, amusingly avoiding real life-conflicts and setting up the tone of what’s to follow.
After their initial meeting, Irv and Sydney hit it off famously, soon becoming partners both romantically and in their line of work…which is conning people out of their money. Complications begin to threaten their rosy criminal enterprise though, not only in the form of Irv’s crazed wife (who he has a son with and isn’t entirely separated from), but also a client who turns out to be an FBI agent. Rather than simply arrest them, the feds give them an offer for release if they assist in catching some bigger fish.
Russell’s built up quite a company of actors since The Fighter, and the cast here is mostly made up of actors from his previous two films. Silver Linings Playbook became the first film in 3 decades to score acting Oscar nominations in every category last year. A very rare feat, and yet Russell’s pulled it off again a mere 12 months later, giving off the impression that American Hustle’s all about the acting. That has some truth to it. Bale, who slimmed down to play an addict in The Fighter piles on the weight here, with an opening shot lingering on his belly. He leads the film with an excellent performance that stands alongside many of cinema’s great charismatic conmen. Alongside him Amy Adams does yet more stellar work, further cementing her reputation as one of Hollywood’s best working actresses. Bradley Cooper plays their FBI foil, and again appears to be able to act far better under David O. Russell than any other director. They’re backed up by a more understated Jeremy Renner as a New Jersey Mayor and an over-the-top Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s erratic wife. I’d say only Bale and Adams really deserved the Oscar nods.
It also features a show-stopping mid-point cameo from Robert De Niro as a famous mobster, which does hammer in the ‘Scorsese-light’ accusations, but is a tremendous scene in its own right. De Niro was in a decent 2013 film after all, and he’s very good in it too.
Much of the effort put into American Hustle has been spent on appearances, with an abundance of costumes and hairstyles on display. It has a lot of fun in recreating the fashions of the era, Cooper and Adams are both seen with their hair in curlers at points, and it opens with a lengthy shot detailing Bale applying his hair piece. It also probably features the largest number of partial-breast shots without ever technically showing any nudity of any film, primarily courtesy of its lead actresses.
As breezily enjoyable as American Hustle often is, it starts to ramble after a while, losing some of its focus. It has a crime epic structure, but actually ends up feeling much longer than its 138 minutes, leaving the cinema, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn if 3 hours had passed. Comparatively, The Wolf of Wall Street, which was actually 3 hours long, didn’t feel as long as American Hustle did. Even considering this, the latter parts of the film feel to have been edited down a bit, for example at one point Cooper’s character appears to have developed a cocaine habit off-screen that is otherwise not featured, implying it may have been a chopped-out sub-plot.
David O. Russell has become a more accomplished and respected director with every film he’s put out recently, and is now firmly established among the top ranks of Hollywood filmmakers, particularly in his direction of actors. American Hustle is a fun, good-looking, if messy example of his talents, but has been somewhat overpraised. I hope he keeps this prolific winning streak up, but my favourite of his is still probably I Heart Huckabees.