American Hustle – David O’Russell exceesds expectations. (Film Review)

It’s difficult to pin down what is particularly brilliant about American Hustle, except to say that the layers will be revealed in greater depth in future years; it is one of the most perfectly cast films you will ever see; and it stems largely from a transformation of a certain genre it seeks to subvert all the while paying enormous respect (astonishing respect) to its predecessors. American Hustle is very well written, brilliantly acted, and directed with astounding confidence.  It’s one of those films that encourages you to doubt yourself if you think you aren’t having a good time, and ultimately leaves you thinking something great just happened to you but you can’t be exactly sure what. It’s very funny, convoluted in a baroque impenetrable way (as opposed to a confused way) and assumes a great intelligence from its audience  so the 132 minutes, packed with homage shots, plot twists, direct assault on expectations and settled perspective becomes a mind bending fascination with our own expectations around those mid to late 80’s early 90’s “American Crime Films” made so famous by directors like Martin Scorsese and John Huston.

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(I didn’t write a breakdown of the plot, seeing as you’ll find it lots of places.  Go to David Denby’s excellent review for a peek at the overall story.)

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One can’t ignore the circular relationship (the entire film is circular in so many ways)  David O’Russell has to his inspirational forebears at times occurring almost as a spoof and at others an adoration bordering on sycophantic.  For example the scene when Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) intends to seal his new friends ship with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) with a “gift in my trunk”, spliced so directly from Goodfellas, that Irving gets a slightly worried look on his face, mirroring the audience’s expectation of a body in the trunk of the car. It turns out to be a microwave oven, which evokes relief and laughter from the viewer, playing against a suspense built up on the experiential expectation of Goodfellas – not the central plotting of American Hustle. Another Goodfellas spoof is a perfectly matched starting point, the black screen white text message of “This film is based on a true story” being converted to “Some of this actually happened” in American Hustle – a point that immediately evokes giggles based entirely on our already always programmed response to the heaviness of our expectation.  O’Russell and writer Eric Warren Singer play this game with the audience repeatedly (I saw Goodfellas, Married to the Mob and Prizzi’s Honor, but I suspect there are many more I’d catch if my gangster film watching was a little more recent) breaking through the fourth wall by sharing in jokes with the audience and revealing the cast to be the conspicuously carved chess pieces in the game between the viewer and O’Russell. It’s so breathtakingly clever and cements American Hustle as creating as a multilayered, genre breaking piece of brilliant film making.

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However, nuances such as the above wouldn’t work if the film distracted with mediocre efforts elsewhere, and fortunately American Hustle delivers in all areas of expectation. The much glorified cast are as good as everyone says, with “relationship” being treated as a sort of McGuffin, the elusive thing everyone wants with each other, that none are able to materialise through fear of lack. In American Hustle relationships are the film and the plot, the intentions each of the overblown caricatures being to connect in a certain way with the person in front of them, always eluding their grasp, always representing the greatest treasure. It is in the cast and relationships that O’Russell subverts the genre, not only with the addition of exciting female characters (long overdue) who are more than wives and mothers, but by grounding the plotting in dialogue and the attempts to capture the mind of the other person.  In this way American Hustle subverts genre (something O’Russell is good at) and surpasses its predecessors with its modern depth that strangely forces a humanity from characters so ridiculously overblown that they couldn’t possibly be real.  This genre has always attempted to connect the audience to the characters through the human element, but only succeeds to do this through the ego-centric vehicle (something that always irritates me), but American Hustle lets us get close to these people without the overt glamour (or raging machismo) Scorsese can’t seem to prevent himself from plastering all over the leads in his films. In this way O’Russell is almost having a go at those earlier film makers, using their signatures against them in such a good-natured way as to avoid the rousing of anger at a critique of film style very passionately loved.

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The casting is amazing, with the stand out being Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser, who is a revelation in courage and confidence, never once wasting the opportunities she has with such a fantastic female character. She’s perfectly pitched against Bale as Irving Rosenfeld and Bradley Cooper as Richie Di Masso not just luminous during the multiple love scenes, but exuding a deep independent intelligence that posits well against her smouldering sexuality; the many closeup shots in her eyes as she is caught out, the mood shifts from surprise to control and we watch her brain formulate the next move are pure excitement. Christian Bale is the deep thinking, if poorly educated Rosenfeld his confidence manifesting in a peculiar vanity about his mediocre appearance only a man can get away with, a brilliant performance built on impeccable timing and incandescent depth. Cooper brings to life a new kind of cop (did we think that was possible?) filled with a burning ambition that results in a chaotic anger and a misplaced conviction of his own intelligence. Di Masso is the empty gestured ambitious of the post Nixon era (something alluded to by Sydney in the early scenes) whose seen too many cop movies, his ambition forged from fantasy. Jeremy Renner is warmly generous with himself playing Carmine Polito, the politician who lives for the end justifying the means (and who brings out a great deal of the beauty in Rosenfeld – their relationship is an essay in itself) and Jennifer Lawrence is magnetic, hilarious and throbbingly potent as the phenomenally stupid, luscious Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the wife of Bale, a completely scene stealing performer as actor and character.  Despite the clichés, she is also fantastically written (all the five leads are) and like the others, makes the most of the material. Each of the five stars represent a cliché shift, play with the tropes of their characters placement in genre and seem to be intuitively connected to O’Russell. Because of the relationship-heavy script their perfection was essential and it’s been drawn out with the flourished caress of a film magician.

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There is so much more to say – Danny Elfman’s music, Linus Sandgren’s swirling cinematography, and the meticulous editing all contribute to the overall greatness of American Hustle , and I have to add a shout out to the costume and production designers. O’Russell even manages to make Robert De Niro a fresh and interesting gangster. Now that’s talent!

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