American Hustle (2013)
“Everyone Hustles to Survive”
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper
Synopsis: A con man, Irving Rosenfeld, along with his seductive partner Sydney Prosser, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.
There’s a definite taste of Scorsese about American Hustle, David O. Russell’s largely fictionalised take on the 1970s Abscam scandal. It’s there in the structure of the movie, in the use of voice-overs and in the choice of an evocative music soundtrack. Unfortunately, where a movie like Goodfellas enthrals us with a host of compelling characters whom we like in spite of their nihilistic, anti-social ways, American Hustle succeeds only in encouraging us to reflect on how we dislike most of its key protagonists. Only the victims are likeable, and despite his growing misgivings over the scam he is forced to perpetuate, we can only offer Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale — 3:10 to Yuma, The Dark Knight) a form of reluctant sympathy arising from a serious misjudgement in Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s handling of their labyrinthine screenplay.
Rosenfeld — who is based on real-life con man Melvin Weinberg — is the owner of a small chain of dry-cleaning shops who supplements his income through a sting whereby he charges desperate clients $5,000 for organising $50,000 loans which he never arranges. Into Rosenfeld’s life comes Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a kindred spirit who joins him in his cons and with whom he has an affair, even though he is married to the unbelievably irritating and demanding Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence — X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games) and has a young son on whom he dotes. Perhaps inevitably, Rosenfeld and Prosser eventually come to the attention of the FBI and are caught in an undercover sting by agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso offers the duo an out, however: help him trap four more con artists and they can both walk. With no option other than to assist the agent, Rosenfeld agrees despite some misgivings.
It turns out that Rosenfeld is right to have doubts about going into partnership with DiMaso, whose ambitions go far beyond ensnaring con men like him. When Carl Elway (Shea Wigham), an associate of Rosenfeld’s intimates that he can hook Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner — 28 Days Later, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) who is seeking finance for the rebuilding of Atlantic City, DiMaso has visions of arresting a host of crooked congressmen. However, matters take a highly dangerous direction when the mob becomes involved in negotiations…
American Hustle has all the ingredients of a fun and absorbing study of dubious personalities operating on the fringes of what is both acceptable and safe, but it just can’t seem to get itself out of third gear. It revs loudly, grabbing your attention, but fails to gather momentum. Much of this is due to the fact that there are very few likeable characters in its story. The movie suggests that the con applies not only to the grift played on the hapless Polito and his pals, but to the key players, all of whom are fooling both themselves in one way or another. Most of these cons are trivial — we first meet Rosenfeld as he goes about the business of constructing an elaborate comb-over with the matter-of-fact dexterity of a man who has done the same thing many times before, while Agent DiMaso wears curlers to achieve his tight perm — and none of the characters seem to be aware of the irony ruling their lives. This blinkered ignorance, combined with an innate sense of self-serving dishonesty, combine to keep them trapped in their sleazy domains, thrashing around like landed fish, with no hope of ever moving on, no matter how they might profess to want to change. ‘No more fake shit,’ says Sydney to DiMaso with apparent sincerity as they make out in the ladies toilet of a nightclub, but she never drops the false English accent she uses in her guise as Edith Greensly. Of all those involved, Sydney is the least tainted by corrupt ambition, but she still raises barely a flicker of sympathy.
Russell’s a better director than he is a writer, and if American Hustle had been scribed by a team with a firmer grasp of their material it might have been something of a classic. As it is, we have to make do with a movie in which the acting talent exceeds the quality of the material to such a degree that it eventually becomes annoying.
Oh, yeah – and it’s Shake, not Chic…