As director David O Russell how to you follow the critical and financial success of Silver Linings Playbook? The answer is with American Hustle, and boy – what a double bill that is!
American Hustle is set in the late 70’s – big hair, loud clothes and a disco beat. Bradley Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, a maverick FBI agent stressing-out his more mainstream boss but impressing his ambitious director with his wildly optimistic plans. He recruits (read ‘frames’) small time con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to run an entrapment scam to catch local mayor and family man Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who has been righteously greasing a few too many wheels in his ambitious bid to re-build Atlantic City as a Vegas of the east. A simple FBI playbook (you could even say it was silver lined?) but one that comes under ever-increasing stress due to too key factors: firstly, DiMaso’s wild ambitions that starts to encircle not just low-level shysters but increasingly higher levels of federal and mafia targets; and secondly Rosenfeld’s unstable and unreliable wife Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Where does this film succeed? Well, first and foremost the original screenplay by Eric Singer and David O Russell just drips quality with every line like a beef joint oozing juices. The opening title card says “Some of this actually happened” but the truth, as much as it was true, has been skilfully extended and embellished by the writers. This must surely be a shoe-in for a screenplay Oscar nomination, and will be in my predictions for the award.
Secondly, the performances are just top notch. Christian Bale has never looked less like Bruce Wayne. Piling on the pounds and having the dodgiest combover since my Dad, his opening scene is just brilliant. Then Amy Adams (Man of Steel, Enchanted) wades in with such sass and style that you are mesmerised as you watch Adams and Bale bounce off each other. Nowhere is the acting better than when Bale encounters the most senior mafia head: played as a cameo (brilliantly) by someone you’d fully expect to play that role (no – not Joe Pesci). Bale’s terror at realising the depth of water he is in is brilliantly portrayed and your mouth turns as dry as his no doubt is.
In a supporting role, Jennifer Lawrence makes her first appearance and you think “yeah, she’ll probably get a best supporting actress Oscar nod by default” – she is ‘flavour of the year’ after all. But that is before her performance really kicks in in the second half of the film – – and suddenly you realise you are in the midst of something really special here. Seeing her clean her kitchen in yellow Marigolds belting out “Live and Let Die” after stitching up her cheating husband is a sight to behold. Surely this WILL be another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, and never more deserved.
Jeremy Renner also impresses in a more understated role, but with a never less than impressive performance at the film’s denouement.
I haven’t mentioned pretty-boy Bradley Cooper yet. Although he has some great scenes (for instance, when cruelly mocking his morose boss during a victory celebration), overall I was never as completely convinced by his performance in the film as his in his role in Silver Linings Playbook. Perhaps he was trying a bit too hard.
Finally the music is great: Danny Elfman does the soundtrack, but the smash hits of the 70’s, including Elton John, Wings and the Bee Gees carry the story along with verve and vigour.
Where does the film falter? Well – hardly at all in my view. Perhaps Irving and Sydney’s altruistic tendencies at the end of the film – given their sociopathic and immoral roots at the film’s start – seem a story step too far. But overall this is a glossy and deeply involving story that is my best film so far in 2014. I appreciate that on January 6th, that’s not saying much! But I fear I might need to wade through a good few dark auditoria this year before I find a film that surpasses this one. Go see it!
Fad Rating: FFFFf.