American Hustle is one of those slick, watchable, con-within-a-con movies that Hollywood does so well. It’s very loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. Con-artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught in a scam and forced to cut a deal with ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Together they orchestrate an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt local politicians, including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The wheels quickly come off thanks to DiMaso’s recklessness and Rosenfeld’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
American Hustle pays meticulous attention to period details – the hairstyles, the facial hair, the soft furnishings, the soundtrack – its more 70s than the 70s. But that’s what movies do – they make real life, even the miserable and unpleasant bits, look shinier and more appealing than the real thing. Arguably less attention gets paid to faithfully following the true sorry it purports to tell. Whether or not that matters is up for debate – they’re movies after all not documentaries – and this one starts by telling us that ‘some of this actually happened’.
Given the calibre of the cast the acting is flawless. Bale, ever the method actor and here complete with genuine paunch and (not genuine) elaborate comb-over is utterly convincing as Rosenfeld, desperately juggling his lover, his crazy wife, his son and his livelihood and truly conflicted about double-crossing Carmine. Amy Adams does a great job at balancing vulnerability and ruthlessness (and staying just this side of decent in all those plunging necklines) as his partner Sydney Prosser. Bradley Cooper totally embraces his character’s toddler-like naivety and eagerness, becoming more and more manic as the situation slips out of his control. Jeremy Renner is likeable and rather sweet as well-meaning Mayor Polito, so desperate to get his neighbourhood back on its feet that he takes a backhander and then watches all his good intentions and his life unravel. But Jennifer Lawrence stole it for me as Rosenfelds wife Rosalyn, with the towering improbable hair-dos and the car crash personality – needy, self-absorbed, spiteful and insecure this role must have been a joy to play.
The plot is overly complicated, with so many twists and turns it’s hard to keep track but it’s so well-played and so much fun that it didn’t seem to matter. And there are some fabulous scenes: Jennifer Lawrence singing along to ‘Live and Let Die’ at top volume while aggressively dusting in yellow Marigolds, relishing the mess she’s created for her husband; the tense meeting with local mobsters where the visiting Mafia boss (a certain uncredited cameo appearance) addresses DiMaso’s fake Sheik in real Arabic, and the whole plot looks on the point of unravelling, is genuinely menacing. And I will personally never forget the happy sight of Bradley Cooper in tiny perm rollers arguing with his mum, with whom he apparently still lives despite being a grown up and working for the FBI.
American Hustle is a great film and the director (David O. Russell) and the cast clearly had a lot of fun with it. It reminded me at times of a less gritty Boogie Nights. And while it’s undoubtedly clever, funny, well-acted and looks fabulous, unlike Boogie Nights, there’s not much at its centre. It’s a bit like all those exciting 70s sweets I had growing up – all bright colours, garish wrappers and fizz but not much substance, gone in a moment.
But, on balance (and like the candy), it’s still worth having for that big hit of flavour.