Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Copper
Running time: 138 minutes
Release: 1st January 2014
In the middle of his early 80s Hollywood success, with Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre behind him, Louis Malle started development on a film called Moon Over Miami. It was to be a comedy about the Abscam scandal of the mid-70s, where the FBI tricked several high-ranking politicians into taking bribes and then arresting them. Atlantic City scribe John Guare wrote a script, and shooting was to start in summer 1982, with John Belushi and Dan Akroyd confirmed as the leads. Then, in March, John Belushi died, and the film was never made. Years later, Guare turned the script into a play, but critics were unimpressed; Frank Rich of the New York Times complained that the Abscam jokes were out of date. And now, decades later, David O. Russell has taken up the subject, with Christian Bale playing the part Belushi would have taken on; as the con artist the FBI pressure into helping them out.
Russell knows that the political specifics aren’t what make the story engaging. He fashions the raw historical material (“some of this actually happened” say the opening titles) into a Shakespearean comedy of deceit and cross-purposes while making the most out of the jive-up-and-be-counted 1970s setting. Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is a con artist with an elaborate comb-over. His lover and partner is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), an intelligent and anxiety-prone former stripper. Their routine is touchingly symbiotic: Sydney puts on a low-cut dress and a dodgy English accent and becomes Lady Edith Greensley, lending the earthy Irving credibility, while he alternately charms and intimidates prospective investors. Then they’re caught by FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who, after taking a shine to Sydney, promises reduced sentences if the pair give the FBI a hand. Eventually, a power-berserk DiMaso convinces them to try to entrap some high-profile politicians.
Malle’s film was set to be a frenzied comedy, tightly scripted and plotted, a Lubitsch-style farce. American Hustle is looser, bigger – I kept thinking of baggy late-Hollywood classics like Goodfellas or Short Cuts. The zaniness inherent to the subject matter is toned down. (‘Abscam’ stands for ‘Arab scam’; to make it real for the prospective investors, some of the FBI men dressed up as a comedy Arab sheik.) Several of the more dialogue-heavy scenes look at least semi-improvised, or like edits of long improvisations. The conversations between Rosenfeld and his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) are especially, wonderfully sloppy. Christian Bale could never have been described as a ‘warm’ actor, and maybe it’s just the spare tyre around his waist, but he can pull off a touching long-suffering loser.
Russell has spoken about the film as an homage to a long-gone analogue way of life, where wealth and power were a lot more immediate and tangible. This isn’t quite the case – the suitcase full of dollar bills is a fake, after all, and so is the hairpiece. Charm seems to be the only real currency. If Malle had made his film, chances are he would have inserted a strong moral centre. The drama would then have hung around the consequences of moral choices, like in Lacombe, Lucien. In American Hustle, it’s personality, camaraderie, chemistry first, morality last. Richie’s FBI superior, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), is the only conventionally ‘good’ character in the film, but he’s charmless and therefore cloutless. Rosalyn sets things on fire, ruins everyone’s plans, chats up gangsters, and comes out more or less on top.
Perhaps because of the improvisation, some of the characters are a little inconsistent. Rosalyn’s intelligence level fluctuates considerably and DiMaso’s mounting mania isn’t quite credible. But these are minor, and arguable, quibbles. And I’m not such a contrarian that I could actually find anything bad to say about Jennifer Lawrence. American Hustle is excellent, and, coming after The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, completes a deft hat-trick for David O. Russell.