Looking back on…American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)
Directed by: David O’Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Written by Nathan
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The first draft of this review initially featured the following line and the following line only; ‘American Hustle is the good type of batsh*t crazy cinema you want’. I feel that Sarah was after a little more sophistication for this ‘Looking Back On’ series though, what with it revolving around the most glamorous time of year for film, so here we go…

‘American Hustle’ steamrolled into the award conversation upon its release in 2013, positioning itself as an early front-runner and scooping up a mammoth ten Oscar nominations across all acting and major categories. Come the day of the 86th Academy Awards in 2014 however, the film walked away empty-handed, unceremoniously receiving the title of ‘the second most nominations for a single film without a win’. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence star as the ensemble of David O’Russell’s black comedy drama that, essentially, was consistently great but never truly ruled award season supreme. Rather than for its Oscar glory, the film is seemingly now more renown for the controversy sparked over the pay gap between its male and female stars – but how does the film really size up to the competition and is snubbing the film of any wins unforgivable?

It’s four-quadrant Academy acting nominations for Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence only begins to explain the power, charm and downright blast this A-Class cast of talents has. Christian Bale becomes the slimy, greasy con man, Irving Rosenfeld, with a little too much ease, with his eyes firmly fixed on all the money he can get his hands on, starting an affair with Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser to assist his ascent, who uses her own female wiles to seduce the men in her life with a sophisticated balance of intelligence and good looks for measure. Between them (although the latter in particular shines) they masterfully devise the toxic chemistry of Irving and Sydney that is every bit as compelling as it is disastrous, perfecting the strengths and weaknesses that this business-come-pleasure relationship precipitates, including the potential for failure caused not by possible mistakes – they are, after all, too professional for that – but because of their own vanity and egos. A film like this could be so wrong, but it instead feels so right because it nails this central relationship expertly.

Straddling the lead-come-supporting actor boundary, Bradley Cooper delivers an impassioned and ambitious performance as FBI agent Richard DiMaso, providing a hilarious and tense turn that continues his terrific run of award season success both before and after the fact. Jeremy Renner brings his best performance to date, even though his character is perhaps the most weakly-realised and thinly-sketched of the five, but he still manages to craft a conflicting performance that leaves the audience questioning how they should feel towards him. However, and despite existing in a glorified cameo capacity, this is Jennifer Lawrence’s show through and through. Commanding every scene she features in, her comedy muscles are put to the test, flexed and passed with flying colours, with her “Live and Let Die” scene serving as the absolute stand-out of the entire 138 minute runtime. Manipulative and savvy, Lawrence’s Rosalyn Rosenfeld is a scheming machine that is very often, surprisingly, the cleverest in the room and for certain the most entertaining. More roles like this for Miss Lawrence, please – she is simply incredible.

Each and every one of these characters is so deeply flawed in their ideologies and actions – we really shouldn’t like them, as they very often represent the worst elements of the American Dream – but O’Russell’s screenplay cunningly depicts them in their most fragile state. It slowly peels the covers back on their consciences which allows the audience to see sparks of their humanity beneath their confident, unscrupulous facades; from Rosalyn’s “I don’t like change. It’s really hard for me. Sometimes I think that I’ll die before I change” to Sydney’s “you’re nothing to me until you’re everything”, these characters are so intricate and complex, crafted to evoke a genuine emotional response from audiences who are genuinely connected to them. So often, deplorable characters such as those that populate ‘American Hustle’ are the crucial downfall to similarly-themed pictures, exemplified with lamentable films such as ‘Gold’, ‘War Dogs’ and (for me, at least) ‘The Big Shor’t in the past eighteen months, yet ‘American Hustle’ overcomes the difficulty by fleshing-out these difficult characters into ones viewers can stand behind, albeit from a distance.

It’s so fascinating to watch their multiple layers ripped away with the ever-changing dynamics of the piece, no more so demonstrated than in the film’s fantastic ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ sequence, another highlight, watching fraught and trying relationships develop and/or fall apart before our very eyes. It’s helpful too that O’Russell is forever giving us something interesting to look at, from the sharp 70s production values (sets, costumes and wigs – a lot of wigs) and excellent score (its opening title score won’t be forgotten in a while, and neither will the aforementioned Yellow Brick Road and Live and Let Die sequences) to the beautiful, vibrant camera work and direction and enchanting, amorous cinematography of the piece. ‘American Hustle’ oozes quality and sophistication, embodies the era terrifically and, most importantly, is so much fun.

Despite taking drastic dramatic liberties, ‘American Hustle’ does find itself jumbled and confused as we head towards the film’s conclusion and, on occasions, you do find yourself straining to concentrate and follow each and every development in the scam, obviously working to the film’s disadvantage, along with the fact is runs on a little too long. While still unconvinced the time jumps do an awful lot to help this film either, they do help benefit by delivering an essential part of the film’s intensity that runs throughout as the scam gets increasingly more risky for all involved. For all the examples in which the film ties itself in knots trying to either explain or untangle itself from the mayhem of previous scenes, O’Russell alleviates all the heaviness with the perfect amount of comedy to counterbalance the tone, which is where the film triumphs and a lot of its success emerges from, outside of the performances.

Themes are expertly handled in a number of different, admirable ways; whether its the simplicity of being interwoven into the main narrative, themes such as the American Dream, deception, greed, reinvention and deceit are obvious on a surface level but are evident in a number of other, more subtle ways. When looking deeper, the themes and ideas go a lot further, existing sometimes in equally powerful but less evasive ways. For example, Rosalyn’s bizarre analogy of her nail varnish smelling ‘perfume-y but rotten’ encompasses each and every one of the duplicitous characters, all of whom are (whether knowingly or not) leading their lives as a performance to others and to themselves, reinventing themselves as the narrative progress to become the person they think people want them to be; the being they need people to believe they are; or the individual they actually think that they are. It’s magnificent work and could so very easily (and has…) been overlooked and under-appreciated, particularly to those watching on a more casual level.

Most of the success of this piece comes down to the characters, speaking incredibly highly of the five actors who bring them to life and O’Russell, the man behind all of the magic, as well as the co-writers. It’s a shame that its record-setting number of nominations of the 2014 season could not translate into actual award season gold, almost always settling for second best, but alas. It deserved to be commemorated, if only to celebrate the most impressive, mesmerising ensemble cast you could possibly lay your eyes on. ‘American Hustle’ is giddy, fun, dramatic and immensely enjoyable cinema that hits many of the right notes with a sheer amount of force and fun. It will push you into the sense of being utterly overwhelmed by all the elements flying left, right and centre but it is always, always enthralling. Never one to rest on its laurels, it keeps building and building on its characters, narratives and themes until you feel it can do no more. And then it builds some more. It’s complex (mainly in the good sense of the word) and clever at all times and if you buckle yourself in, you will enjoy the ride of the ‘American Hustle’.

★★★★★★★★★☆
(9/10)

Summary: ‘American Hustle’ is a sheer fun, mainly because of the sensational ensemble cast that bring so much to these interesting, intriguing characters, as well as the deft balance of drama and humour that David O’Russell masters so efficiently.

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