Few directors, even great ones, enjoy the kind of prolific creative resurgence that David O’Russell is currently enjoying. After a six year hiatus, he has bounced back and how! In four years, he has made three films. All three have received critical acclaim. Two have received Oscars, and American Hustle, his third and most recent feature seems destined to go down the same path. Each film is very different from the other and yet very similar, in that they depend greatly on individual characters and performances than on the plot itself.
American Hustle is set in the 70s, in the background of disco, swag, garish styling and the resurgence of Atlantic City. Irving Rosenfield (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are in love. They are also the Bonnie & Clyde of New York, swindling people for money on the promise of imaginary arranging for loans. This goes on until Richie DiMaso (Cooper) catches them in the act (so to speak) and cuts a deal. They must help him nab other white collar criminals in exchange for escaping prison time. What starts out as a game to catch smaller fish, soon lands them on the doorstep of the mayor of New Jersey (Renner) who is seeking to revive the economy by legalising gambling and getting investment to rebuild Atlantic City. Soon Congressmen, senators and the mob get involved and the situation threatens to get out of control. Add to this mix Irving’s unpredictable, depressed wife Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and you have a powder keg ready to go up in flames, taking everyone with it.
The film transports you in the sweaty, grimy, seedy, greedy world of 1970s New York. The production design, costumes, music and cinematography is spot on. The story is good and the script sharp. However, they aren’t particularly exciting. Apart from one or two surprises, the writing is fairly straightforward and suffers on account of its predictability. Much like Silver Linings Playbook, it isn’t the writing that sets the film apart from the rest of its ilk. It is O’Russell’s confident direction and his uncanny ability to infuse humour in unexpected places and extract wonderful performances from his cast.
As an ensemble, you don’t get better performances than here. All five of the principle cast members are given meaty characters and they waste no time in sinking in their teeth. Bale shines throughout, grotesque pot belly and all. Cooper shows some serious acting chops as the eager, ambitious, power tripping cop, who is under the illusion of having everything under control. Renner is great as the mayor who sees corruption as a means to an end.
Despite all this, the men are outshone by the women here. Amy Adams has been convincing in many roles in her career. However, one wouldn’t consider her as an obvious choice to play a manipulative, sexy seductress. Yet here, she is exactly that and excellent at it. When the veneer of sensuality cracks, she brings out the vulnerability and survival instincts of Sydney rather brilliantly. At the same time, there is Jennifer Lawrence, who is undoubtedly the most talented actor of her generation and fast on her to entering the annals of time as one of the greats. She displays dexterity that is well beyond her years and a brazen attitude that is just devastatingly sexy.
Overall, this is a good film made great fun by some fantastic performances. Expect a master class in acting but not a masterpiece and you’ll have a great evening out.