American Hustle is a very entertaining film, if only for the work of that remarkable cast. They sublimely elevate this comedic (perhaps not always accurate) interpretation of real life events beyond all expectations. Without the charms of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, director David O. Russell would have been stuck out in the cold with an unfortunately average script.
The screenplay in question, co-written by Russell and The International scribe Eric Singer, was inspired by the events surrounding the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70's, in which Congressmen were plied with bribes, in an attempt to root out corruption in the US Government.
Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are a couple of con-artists/ lovers who, after an arrest, are lured (dare I say, extorted) into assisting the FBI with the case. Richie DiMaso (Cooper) is the manic, perm-coiffed FBI agent who wants to land himself this massive case and maybe even take Sydney to bed.
The supporting players are also impeccably chosen. Look no further than Richie DiMaso's Mother, played brilliantly by character actress Patsy Meck (who appeared in Russell's previous film, Silver Linings Playbook). Sometimes, the least glamorous characters are the most enjoyable and memorable. You won't find a better ensemble cast this year.
Proudly wearing it's influences on it's sleeve, the script cannot help but remind audiences of Scorsese's early 90's works, Goodfellas and Casino (both narratively and stylistically). The voice-over, the pop soundtrack, the gauche period clothes, they're all here. The writers even employ multiple narrators to take us through this "real life true story", first introducing the players, then giving us a tour of this unfamiliar new world-- showing us one perspective and then another.
(Check out the clip at the bottom of the page, a moment that seems plucked directly from the courtship of Henry and Karen from Goodfellas.)
Director Russell endlessly (and distractingly) swoops his camera in and out of scenes, mimicking his peers in an attempt to capture a frenzied, kinetic feel. You get the sense that at some point on-set, Russell said: "I want this whole movie to feel like the cocaine section of Boogie Nights."
It's usually an unwise move to crib touches from other contemporary directors or films (especially such beloved ones). The audience just ends up shaking their heads, thinking : "I'd rather be watching Boogie Nights or Goodfellas right now." (BTW: May I also take this opportunity to point out that J.J. Abrams' excessive use of lens flare is all thanks to P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love?)
Like those aforementioned Scorsese films, by the end of American Hustle, we have learned far more about these goofy, but likable characters than we have about the real life events surrounding them. That's perfectly fine. It would be unfair to criticize the film for not being as historically informative as something like David Fincher's Zodiac. This isn't a documentary about the ABSCAM scandal.
Instead, American Hustle is a con artist movie, dolled up in an incredibly flashy cinematic fashion. It's fun, shiny, Hollywood entertainment. This isn't David Mamet's House of Games. Far from it. This is more of a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, only with better looking actors. (Apologies to Steve Martin and Glenne Headly.)
But why does David O. Russell, a filmmaker who has made genuinely great movies in the past (Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees are both must-see films) feel the need to ape Scorsese or PTA? I would rather he ape a younger, bolder David O. Russell.
American Hustle is a very flawed yet, very charming movie, overflowing with sensational performances.
Note: The trailers spoil absolutely nothing, which is refreshing. But the one element that is not featured in the marketing that I feel should be trumpeted and cheered (if only to sell a few more tickets) is the pitch perfect performance of Louis CK, who laconically steals every one of his scenes.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.