At the start of American Hustle, the latest from director David O Russell, a caption claims that “some of what follows actually happened”. Quite honestly, I suspect that to be about as accurate as the Coen Brothers’ legendary (and hilarious) deliberate lie that Fargo was based on a true story. But regardless of facts, American Hustle is a very entertaining piece of work.
The first thing that strikes one about the film is the hair. Hilariously over the top 70’s barnets are the order of the day here, most notably Christian Bale’s immensely elaborate comb-over. Bale himself gives an excellent performance as Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist who meets and falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who subsequently joins him in his schemes. However after being caught by an unhinged FBI agent with a very short fuse (Bradley Cooper), they are forced to participate in his plans to expose corruption at high levels by essentially running an entrapment con on various senators and Mayor of Atlantic City Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). As with all these kinds of stories, the course of true con doesn’t run smoothly, with complications caused by Rosenfeld’s loose cannon wife (Jennifer Lawrence), the mob, sexual jealousy and more.
It’s a tangled and darkly comical web, but never a full-on farce as it touches on several of the director’s touchstone themes – his penchant for people on the brink of serious mental health problems for instance. I didn’t find it quite as winning as his previous film Silver Linings Playbook, but I certainly preferred it to The Fighter, which I have never been a big fan of. American Hustle is atmospheric and ambitious, with 70s period detail including the afore-mentioned hair, flamboyant outfits and well-chosen pop songs all mixed to fine effect. The star-studded cast – including one highly entertaining cameo – all perform well, and on the whole I can understand why this looks to be a major awards contender.
On a moral/spiritual level the film is trying to say something about how we are all con artists of one kind or another, and how we even con ourselves just to get through life. The FBI are essentially hypocrites in their quest and the film clearly sides with the corrupt politicians targeted by their investigation; particularly the Mayor who is essentially a likeable, decent, honourable man who isn’t afraid of bending the law a little for the supposed greater good.
However, whatever one feels about such a message, the film’s insights aren’t particularly profound. In the end, American Hustle is best taken simply as an enjoyable if somewhat exhausting comedy drama (with the usual warnings for swearing and some sexual content). In fact, it’s worth it for Bale’s comb-over alone.