In his follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s fictional con caper movie (‘Some of this actually happened’) is set in the shady world of corruption, sting and scandal in 70s America and tells the story of brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Along with his equally cunning and seductive British partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), Rosenfeld is forced to work for a wild, sleazy, manipulative FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper in poodle perm).
DiMaso pushes them into a dangerous world of New Jersey powerbrokers and the Mafia. On April 28 1978, at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Rosenfeld dons fake hair and a 70s suit to join DiMaso in a corruption sting on Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a volatile, New Jersey political operator caught between the con artists and Feds. But Irving’s unpredictable, unstable, passive-aggressive, estranged wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to bring the entire world of everybody in the movie crashing down.
There’s no doubting the supreme, unique talents of the special ensemble cast and director. But you can’t help the feeling that the film, director and actors are all trying too hard to show off and be clever, and the effort shows in an abrasive, irritating movie full of abrasive, irritating characters doing abrasive, irritating things.
Nevertheless, Bale, Adams and Lawrence all impress greatly in their extreme roles. They pitch it right and get it right, note perfect, bringing off incredibly tricky roles. They’re all scary and deranged portraits of human flotsam and jetsom.
Cooper, though, gives one of his alienating masterclasses in smarmy, up-himself OTT playing. He’s got to learn the mantra, less is more, less is more, and stop smirking! Renner makes only a small impression, swamped by the others.
Robert De Niro is wasted as a stock mafia killer. Otherwise stupendous, Adams’s ‘English’ accent isn’t at all good and wanders about al over the place.
There’s a real problem that you can see the climactic sting far, far too early on, so this isn’t satisfying, just an anti-climax. All stings are measured by The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven, so new films need to up the ante on them, not fall short.
Russell’s and Eric Singer’s screenplay game plan to start in the middle of the story, then jump back into convoluted flashbacks, is a plotline nightmare. Again, it’s meant to be smart, but it’s aggravating. And it’s a stale cliché. What’s wrong with ‘let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’?
American Hustle’s stylised presentation and comical tone work against it in terms of truth, values and human feeling. We don’t care about the characters, they’re all appalling, and we aren’t really asked to. Then again, the film simply isn’t either funny and crazy enough like Boogie Nights or tough and ‘real’ enough like Casino or Goodfellas to work fully.
Bringing other movies quickly to mind, American Hustle doesn’t feel fresh, it feels warmed over. It’s tasty enough as fast food, and there’s certainly plenty of it in a big, fat, good-value portion, but it’s a snack from a franchise store not a great meal from a class restaurant.
Did I mention that it’s a way over-length 138 minutes? But many of those minutes are thoroughly enjoyable and eye-catching. It’s that and the three star performances that save it.
American Hustle is in cinemas now.
(C) Derek Winnert 2013, derekwinnert.com