Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) are staring at what is apparently a fake Rembrandt, hanging on a gallery wall. “People believe what they want to believe because the guy who made this was so good that it’s real to everybody,” says Irving. “Now who’s the master, the painter or the forger?”
This scene is key to David O. Russell’s latest energetic offering, American Hustle, as it is a significant reference to the fact that the director himself has manufactured a masterful forgery; brilliantly, this is a story that deals with the concept of deception and wavering facades, but the entire movie has been constructed as an imitation of two of Martin Scorsese’s finest achievements, GoodFellas and Casino. It doesn’t feel enough to simply say this film recalls those two peaks of 90s cinema: Russell has deliberately made location, editing, voiceover, set design, camera movement, casting, flashback, soundtrack and costume / make-up choices that echo Scorsese’s films.
Rosenfeld is a con-man who divides his time between running a legitimate laundry business and tricking desperate people with his loan scams (or selling forged or stolen artworks to rich, dumb collectors). He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party, and the pair gradually fall in love. Sydney begins to help Irving perpetuate his scams, successfully portraying an English aristocrat called Lady Edith Greensley to help draw in unsuspecting victims.
Complicating matters for Sydney and Irving, though, are the increasingly bizarre actions of two other main characters: Irving’s young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) – whose son Irving has adopted – and ambitious FBI man DiMaso. DiMaso catches Irving and Sydney in the middle of one of their cons during an undercover sting, and in order to avoid a jail sentence they agree to help the feds by working alongside DiMaso as he attempts to bribe a succession of corrupt politicians and public figures, including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). (The plot is partly based on the FBI’s Abscam sting, which took place in the late 70s and early 80s.)
As the web they weave gets ever more complex, Irving’s relationship with Sydney reaches breaking point, while Sydney aligns herself with the infatuated Richie. Richie is a loose cannon, clashing with his mild-mannered mid-level boss Stoddard (Louis CK), and his judgment becomes increasingly questionable as a result of his ever-inflating ego and his unquenched desire for Sydney. Meanwhile the presence of the mob, led by the violent mafia boss Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro in an uncredited cameo) signals further worries for Irving.
This reasonably-intricate plot is married to Russell’s constant Scorsesefication (it is a word.). The fast cuts and zooms made me think instantly of GoodFellas and Casino, not the films that influenced Scorsese. Rosenfeld’s narration is occasionally interspersed with a separate one from Sydney, recalling Sharon Stone and De Niro’s brilliant dovetailing voiceovers in Casino. The soundtrack – a mix of well-judged late 70s pop by the likes of David Bowie, Elton John and Steely Dan, jazz and swing – seems to depend on both the film’s pace and what exactly is happening on screen, showing a great deal of consideration as to what has been included: just like GoodFellas and Casino.
As the film plays the similarities stack up. While Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly Scorsese’s latter-day muse, De Niro still remains the actor most closely associated with the director. What does Russell do? He casts De Niro in a minor role. If he had wanted to distance himself from Scorsese at all he could have picked a dozen other actors, but he specifically chose De Niro. Why? Because he wants to continually remind the viewer they are looking at a forgery. Why does Bale deliberately incorporate De Niro’s mannerisms into his portrayal of Rosenfeld, even down to the narrowed eyes and down-turned mouth? Again: to remind you of De Niro, the Scorsese actor above all Scorsese actors. Why does Jeremy Renner have that particular haircut? Because it constantly reminds you of Joe Pesci’s GoodFellas character Tommy DeVito. Why does the restaurant look like it does? Because it makes you think of the steakhouse in GoodFellas. Why is there a scene showing a young Rosenfeld drumming up business for a glazing company by smashing windows? Because Scorsese did similar with the young Henry Hill.
It’s so easy to sit back and enjoy American Hustle as it rambles along with all this rambunctious style and fizzing energy. After an initial 20 minute burst the film actually settles down for half an hour or so (this is when you hear more jazz and swing on the soundtrack) before halfway through it goes supersonic, introducing tried-and-tested crowd pleasers like sex, drugs and
rock n’ roll disco as these impossibly cool characters go about the business of craftily trying to get one over on each other.
As has been stated many times before now, the principal cast members of this film are superb. Bale, Lawrence and Cooper are all given flamboyant characters, but Adams is equally impressive in her less-showy role. She could so easily have faded into the background, but her Sydney is a vital presence throughout. Renner is a reassuring on screen figure too as the devoted family man Polito, and it is worth praising his restraint given the scenery-chewing that is taking place all around him. Bale matches his best work here, which for my money was in Trevor Reznick’s The Machinist, and not Russell’s earlier film The Fighter: I greatly enjoyed his Rosenfeld, a man who is cocksure one minute and reduced to a heap on the pavement with heart trouble the next. He may swagger around the screen despite his hairpiece and pot belly, but he’s also easily reduced to silence by his tempestuous wife, a woman he maintains he detests despite being totally addicted to her. He is vulnerable, scared, and puts on a hell of a front to mask it.
Lawrence is also excellent, and I will not be in the least bit surprised if she picks up another Oscar this year for her performance in this film. I found myself wanting to see more and more of her character, as she is involved in so many of the film’s great moments: defiantly facing down Sydney in the toilet, cleaning at home to Live And Let Die, berating Irving for bringing a ‘science oven’ (i.e. a microwave) into the house … she is really enjoyable to watch. Rosalyn is another fascinating character: on the surface she gives the impression of being a dumb blonde, but she later reveals a conniving, measured side when it suits her needs. Lawrence exposes the façade skillfully.
An equal amount of scene-stealing comes from Bradley Cooper. The one segment that reveals DiMaso’s home life is a stroke of genius, altering instantly our perception of this smartly-dressed, cocky agent, and one of my few issues with the film is that it didn’t explore the off-the-clock life of Richie thoroughly enough. Still, his jealous bickering with Rosenfeld is very funny, and no less enjoyable are the increasingly-humiliating scenes he has with Stoddard. Cooper is getting better with every film, and he seems well-suited to dark comedies like this.
The screenplay for this shaggy dog story was originally called American Bullshit, and all of the four main characters are in the process of reinventing their lives and – frequently – deceiving others by their appearance. They are all so careful in constructing their particular fronts that there is great pleasure to be had when the pressure cranks up and each of them begins in turn to buckle and the masks begin to slip. One running motif throughout the film is that of hair styling; the picture begins with Irving steadily putting his hairpiece and comb-over in place, and we are treated to the sight of the other three in curlers at various points. These characters are in the process of inhabiting new (meticulously detailed) personas, with huge attention paid to the details, but they can only keep up appearances for so long.
Problems? Not many. I don’t have a problem with the fact it is derivative, because I fully believe it is derivative for a reason. De Niro’s mob boss has been criticized, but I found him to be an unsettling, frightening presence, even compared to some of the roles in the man’s back catalogue. For me it’s just a relief to see him in something good again, rather than his late period default mode of chimping for laughs in some third rate, half-arsed comedy or other.
If you think I’m gushing, I’m afraid I’m not going to apologize for it. This is exactly the kind of film that I love: entertaining, expertly-directed, beautifully shot, knowingly-witty, well-acted, a fantastic script filled with memorable lines and with so many other sundry elements that add to the finished whole American Hustle is a joy to behold. There are so many scenes here that will be considered as ‘classic’ in the years to come, and iconic performances that leave you wanting more despite the long-ish running time. The pretentious and impenetrable I Heart Huckabees aside, I have enjoyed all of Russell’s films that I have seen, but this is the first one that has knocked me to the floor. I haven’t seen many of the other supposed leading Oscar contenders, but by all accounts it is shaping up to be a difficult year in which to guess the eventual ‘Best Picture’ winner; this must surely be in the running. A forgery it may be, but at times it is very, very difficult to distinguish from the finest works of the master it tries to copy.
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Running Time: 138 Minutes