American Hustle (2013)

Review first published by Little White Lies

“We don’t do new — we renovate!”

So declares Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a salt-of-the-earth politician in New Jersey 1978, as he shows Sheik Abdullah (Michael Peña) around the Atlantic City building that he hopes to turn into a casino. Carmine’s big dream depends on Abdullah’s investment, but the Sheik is a fake — part of an elaborate sting operation spearheaded by Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who has his own dreams of FBI glory, curlier hair and a more glamorous life.

Having recently arrested and recruited talented con artist team Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to help him catch much bigger fish, Richie now has a jones both for overweening entrapment schemes and for Sydney herself (who he believes is an English woman named Edith). Meanwhile, Sydney dreams of settling down with her beloved Irv, even if his current wife, the volatile Rosalind (Jennifer Lawrence), has no plans to let him go, and every intention to stir up trouble.

In keeping with the title’s suggestion of national allegory, all these characters are pursuing an American dream built on delusion and lies — and yet you need little more than the title itself, and the opening images of Irv vainly combing over his bald patch, to grasp this point. For the rest, American Hustle is a comedy caper which — much like Richie, Irv and Sydney’s ever-expanding plan — conceals mere smoke and mirrors beneath its epic duration, strutting ambition and nuance-free period detail (moustaches! paisley! sideburns! disco!).

This is a long film, but its actions are no long con: for even if there is, as every con-artist film requires, a ‘twist’ ending, this is also expressly conceived only in the final act rather than planned right from the beginning, making the overall plot feel strangely loose and meandering.

American Hustle is elevated by the great quality and chemistry of its performances, with Bale putting on as much weight as he took off for The Machinist, Adams playing a double game of easy and hard to get, Cooper offering a comic reprise of his role from The Place Beyond the Pines, and Lawrence stealing every scene with the sort of unguarded, unembarrassable klutziness that has also marked the actress’ public persona. These actors all played principal parts in David O Russell’s last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which marked the director’s transition from awkward, often transgressive independent (with Spanking the Monkey, etc.) to mainstream favourite.

The price for this conversion has been his originality. For while you can feel Russell straining here for the scope and sweep of, say, Boogie Nights or Casino (the latter homaged with a significant cameo), what in fact we get is narrative flab to match Irv’s prominent paunch — and while there is much here that is certainly crowd-pleasing, this nostalgia-tinged confidence-trick confection shows Russell (much like Sydney in her second-hand clothes) merely renovating the tropes and fashions of yesteryear, rather than doing anything genuinely new.

Anticipation This has already won Best Film from the New York Film Critics Circle. 4

Enjoyment The NYFCC was conned — maybe by the quality performances. 3

In Retrospect Fun, charming, but slight – and way too long and flabby in the girth for such slightness. 3

Anton Bitel