The obvious joke is that there’s two Marty Scorsese movies coming out this Christmas Season, and this is one of them. That’s unfair. Feeling the electrified pulse of the era-set 70’s soundtrack, director and writer David O Russel has delivered yet another in a string of flippin’ fantastic movies following his creative rebirth with The Fighter. It earned Christian Bale his first oscar, who has been brought back as the leading man in O Russel’s latest feature, American Hustle. Following a quadfecta of con men on both sides of the law, the film is a loose adaption of events in which a group of master con men are bullied into helping the FBI to take down politicians in the late 70‘s. To the spoiler averse, don’t worry: this is all in the opening scene. O Russel rewrote the screenplay to be less of an Argo baby and instead his own thing, a dramedy made up of inexorably flawed individuals and how they fight to a happy ending.
His actors were given necessary room to gain custody of the picture, with O Russel taking a stylistic step backwards. In other films this might’ve been a flaw, where even though the film is lit with the golden glow of the 70‘s, the visual style is typically bland. The camera merely follows around the characters in the routine standardized style for directors who want to shoot like Scorsese, though O Russel can’t abandon his core sensibilities, and he uses indie-cam constantly. A lesser director would have asserted a more authoritative stylistic presence, but O Russel wisely reigns it in. It’s the cast’s show, O Russel knows it, and he generously gives his film to them. It’s only during the big moments do the cocaine fueled camera moves set in, usually running into or out of the faces of the major characters. These moments of flamboyance are mostly well timed, and add necessary visual flair while they frame the performances as the spectacles that they are. The entire cast is wonderful. It’s the mark of a great director to know when to push the performances and when to push the direction: a delicate dance where O Russel is brave enough to know when to lead.
Cooper doesn’t match the heart or the complexity of his stellar performance in Silver Linings Playbook, but he enters the picture like a sub machine gun and he never stops firing. Cooper’s performance is a rush of conflicting emotions struggling to resolve themselves from scene to scene. If his character is a cartoon, it’s of the most prestigious variety, and he’s the most consistently funny character in the film. Had Bale not given the bazooka of a performance that he did, Cooper just might have stolen away the film in the same way co-star Bale’s character Irving steals from everyone else. Ranking not only as one of his best transformations, but as one of his best performances to date, Iving shows Bale at his energized best. Few actors could have taken a fattened and balding body and convincingly portrayed a man bursting with dominating swagger. He’s a con man with a conscience and a romantic too, giving Bale reason to show a warmth and hopefulness he’s never had to in any prior role.
He controls the film, or at least insofar as the women in his life have let him. His wife, Rosalyn, played like a force of nature by the instant mega star Jennifer Lawrence, is the smartest and dumbest woman in any room. Lawrence’s accent is a little confused, but she nails the role of a master manipulator. The voice over, voiced by the ensemble at differing junctures rather than by one leading character throughout (a charming decision that adds a literary likeness to the tone), tells us everybody is out to con everybody else, including themselves. Rosalyn is the epitome of the film’s main theme, and we see her internal boxing match between what she convinces herself to believe and what she really does. Amy Adams gives the best female performance in the film, partly due to the running ambiguity of her character. It’s tough to decipher who she’s playing and why, and if she fully understands herself by the time the credits role. This might be why she’s been falsely accused of being miscast, since how ‘believable’ she is, to us and to herself, is an ongoing necessity of her character. Finally, although he’s given the least to work with, Jeremy Renner’s do-goodin’ mayor of New Jersey is a role we’ve never seen him play, and his earnest righteousness is genuine. Each actor shows their range, and together they form the best ensemble this year. The cast is on fire, and nominations are deserving all around.
Characters carry us through the multiplying channels of plot and story, and without them we’d be lost. The overarching narrative is loose and not afraid to show it’s seams, but as the third act rolls in it’s as though the filmmakers insert awkward truisms to make it all more important. The trouble is, Hustle already was a near perfect cocktail of sweeping irreverence with just enough meat on the bone for it to mean something. Somehow, those final moments retroactively weaken the film as a whole, since it represents a lack of confidence in the film, and its characters, to have already said everything it needed to. It’s also an unfortunate consequence of O Russel’s habits as a director that Hustle feels too keenly aware of itself.
Still, I loved it.