American Hustle

December 14, 2013
Christian Bale in 'American Hustle' 2013

There’s something irresistible in a wellmade film about con artists, who are invariably portrayed in a sympathetic light. Perhaps there’s not much difference between them, actors and directors. Filmmakers set out to con the viewer by creating an illusion, setting false trails and expectations. We, in turn, are happy to be conned.

There are plenty of twists in David O. Russell’s fast-paced black comedy, American Hustle, along with a shameless nostalgia for the 70s. I was hooked in the first moments, when Steely Dan’s Dirty Work, came lilting through the speakers. The film features outstanding performances by big name actors who are all cast against type and enjoying themselves immensely.

We’re used to Christian Bale as the brooding Batman in the popular trilogy, but here he plays Irving Rosenfeld, a pot-bellied, balding small-time hustler. Amy Adams, the fresh-faced all-American girl, is Sydney Prosser, Irving’s lover and accomplice – a would-be seductress who doesn’t seem to possess a bra.

Bradley Cooper, fast becoming Hollywood’s favourite gormless romantic lead, is transformed into Richie DiMaso, a hyped-up FBI agent with a perm. Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from playing Katniss in The Hunger Games, is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, a blonde, brassy mixture of naivetie and cunning. Finally, Jeremy Renner, usually typecast as an action hero, is Carmine Polito, a rising politician with an outrageous quiff and a taste for pastel suits.

We meet Irving in the first scenes, as he glues on his toupée and carefully sets the remains of his hair in place. Bulging over his pants is a gut that Bale went into training to achieve. Having turned himself into a hunk of muscle to play Batman, he embarked on a doughnut and cheesburger binge to become Irving, putting on 20 kilos.

We get all the background in flashback, from both Irving and Sydney, who are physical opposites but soulmates in crime. They have prospered with a scam in which Sydney plays Lady Edith, an English aristocrat with London banking connections. Dupes hand over $5,000 cheques for large loans that never materialise. It’s a lucrative business until they are busted by Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent who poses as a potential client.

Richie has enough to put Sydney away, but he has bigger plans for the couple. Help him make four busts, he proposes, and the charges will be dropped. Irving agrees reluctantly, feeling that he can’t simply flee because he has a responsiblity to his batty wife, Rosalyn, and stepson Danny. But he hasn’t factored in Richie’s soaring ambition which leads him to dream of ever bigger targets. Soon they are immersed in a scheme to nab corrupt politicians that finds them double-crossing a mafia boss, played as a perfect cameo by Robert De Niro.

Irving’s problem is no longer how to beat the FBI rap, it is how to stay alive. His difficulties are compounded by Richie’s megalomania, and by a reckless, drunken Rosalyn, who has struck up a friendship with one of the mobsters (Jack Huston). He also feels terrible about bertraying Carmine, whom he has come to accept as a good guy and a friend.

The key component of Richie’s sting is a phoney sheikh, who offers bags of cash for Carmine’s plan to revitalise Atlantic City. We are told during the opening credits “some of this really happened”, and the sheikh story is the true bit. It relates to the FBI’s “Abscam” caper of the 70s, when they used an imaginary Arab potentate called Karim Abdul Rahman to to catch a brace of corrupt politicians. In doing so they employed an experienced conman named Melvin Weinberg.

This is the second atempt to make a movie from the Abscam scandal. Louis Malle was preparing a script called Moon Over Miami in 1982, with John Belushi playing Weinberg, but the actor’s death put an end to the project.

Russell has transposed the action from Philadelphia to New Jersey and taken a large helping of poetic licence with the characters. His major innovation has been to focus on the personal and sexual tensions, interweaving this material seamlessly wth the developing scam. We are never quite sure if Sydney is merely pretending to be attracted to Richie, to keep him on-side, or if there is a genuine chemistry. Neither is it clear that Irving feels no lingering attraction for Rosalyn. Meanwhile, Rosalyn seems to alternate between love and hatred for her estranged husband.

All these sub-plots are played out to a musical accompaniment – as when Richie and Sydney hit the disco for a Saturday Night Fever moment; and Rosalyn mimes to Live and Let Die, gyrating around the kitchen. The story teeters perpetually on the brink of parody, with echoes of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and a host of other films, but it is kept on track by sharp dialogue and brisk editing that never allows us to dwell too long on any incident. We are too caught up in the action to stop and ask whether or not it’s plausible.

Up until now I’ve never understood the outlandish popularity of Bradley Cooper, but his portrayal of the manic, narcissistic Richie DiMaso is amazing. It’s clear that David O. Russell is a director who knows how to bring out the best in his actors. It’s an even rarer distinction that he understands comedy.

American Hustle

USA, rated MA15+
138 mins
Directed by David O. Russell; written by Eric Singer & Davd O. Russell; starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14 December, 2013.