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Film review: AMERICAN HUSTLE, from Built For Speed

American Hustle is an intoxicating mix of 1970’s nostalgia, slow-burn crime drama and comedy that probes themes of deception and identity and constantly asks the question “who’s playing who?”  American Hustle is, along with Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell’s second film of 2013 and together they reassert him as one of American cinema’s most important contemporary auteurs.

Set in 1978 and based very loosely on real events, the film sees Christian Bale play small-time money-lender and scam-artist, Irving Rosenfeld who fleeces dodgy businessmen from the back office of his dry cleaning joint.  When Irving teams up with the smart, beautiful and mysterious Sidney Prosser (Amy Adams) he becomes involved in increasingly audacious stings that eventually land him in deep water with the crazed, bumbling FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper).  To worm their way out of prosecution, Irving and Sidney propose a ludicrous scam – involving a phony Arab sheik – to entrap supposedly bent New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  Irving, however, doesn’t count on his raucous white trash ex-wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) torpedoing the plan.  As events inevitably spiral out of control (and at one point involve the mafia), guilt, bitterness and suspicion threaten to destroy the fragile bond between the Irving, Sidney, Rosalyn and Richie.

With its gaudy 70’s fashions, classic rock tunes and swirling montages that document Irving’s burgeoning criminal career, the perverse culture in which he operates and the mechanics of his scams, American Hustle recalls Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino.  While the similarities are often striking, American Hustle has its own identity and allure, swapping Goodfellas kinetic energy and macho camaraderie for heightened intrigue and a stronger female sensibility.

With four main players in this film as well as a large roster of colourful supporting characters and an in-your-face 70’s-themed production design, it was always going to be a challenge for any cast member to stand out.   Impressively, though, Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence all deliver memorable performances.  Bale’s bulging gut and outrageous comb-over may look comical but he wisely underplays Irving and allows the character’s intelligence and cunning to slowly bubble to the surface.  Adams, who normally plays perky endearing young women, embraces the sleazy and conniving side of her character with glee.  Cooper, whose agent Di Maso wears hair curlers and lives with his Mum, at times seems a little too ridiculous to be an FBI agent but he slowly makes Richie a convincingly desperate oddball.  Jennifer Lawrence once again shows why she is the female actor of the moment with a superbly trashy turn that’s both funny and infuriating.  After what will hopefully be his career nadir in Hansesl and Gretel Witch Hunters Jeremy Renner delivers one of his best performances to date as the well-meaning but fatally ambitious Polito.

The film is full of wonderful sequences that employ iconic 70’s rock tunes from such luminaries as David Bowie, ELO, Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren.  In one of the best uses of popular music in film this year, Russell perfectly uses the Bee Gees melancholic “How do you mend a broken heart” to complement scenes of Irving doubled over with ulcerating guilt at what he’s done to Carmine.

American Hustle is not only set in the 1970’s but it embraces the film-making style of the era with long passages of dialogue and a pace that some audiences today may find a little leisurely.  Cinema-goers who don’t demand instant gratification, though, will welcome the film’s slower pacing as it provides a greater opportunity to immerse themselves in this wonderful fantasy world.

American Hustle succeeds in melding crime drama, caper movie, comedy and romance into a touching film about the destructive and life-affirming nature of relationships. Most of all, though, this film is two hours plus of nostalgic fun. 

Nick’s rating: **** ½ stars.

Genre: Crime drama/ comedy.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): David O. Russell.

Release date: 12th Dec 2013

Running time:  138 mins.

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