I feel like writing this review in slow-mo. In emphatically big hammer-thuds of the keyboard, shot beautifully and kinetically, while lurid but lovely songs play, on the nose with every changing paragraph and leaving nothing to subtlety. Ta-da ta-Da-da ta-da-da-DUM.
It’s a party, this film. David O Russell has thrown together the familiar with tremendous flair, making for a loud, brassy blast of a movie. A movie where the killer ensemble cast unmistakably looks to be having a better time than the audience. Their buoyant energy — and the look-at-me style the movie is soaked in — comes at us hard and fast and it’s best to grin through it. It’s Scorsese with clown-shoes, Soderbergh slowed down and stretched out. (It’s a heh-heh Goodfellas, Ocean’s Twelve on a scratchy turntable.)
It all begins with a combover.
Irving, a velvet-suited slimeball, slack of jaw and chunky of gut, starts off American Hustle wordlessly as he — lovingly, and with masterful precision — positions and parts and pastes his hair into a very specific shape. His partner, and former mistress, Sydney — an eternally glamorous woman with a neckline that skims her navel — knows this, and says Irving “has a process,” which may well be the reason she’s not his mistress anymore. Earlier, when she’d first met and fallen for her paunchy man, she admired the self-assurance with which he let it all hang out. Now it’s hard not to look at everyone as a con; including Irving refusing to leave his wife.
Irving’s wife, now, is a real piece of work. Rosalyn, a highly unstable woman and a tremendously unfit mother, gives the film its weirdest and most wonderful scene where she sings and headbangs violently along to a recording of Live And Let Die while her kid watches, bewildered. And then there’s Richie, a self-serving FBI agent who catches Irving and Sydney in the act and, like a rookie gambler who’s just inhaled his first roulette scraps, wants to hold out for more and more. His plan? To use the con-artists to entrap politicians and mobsters. No matter what his hapless boss says.
In the middle of all these insane characters lies a nugget of truth. Fool’s gold, really. In the 1970s, there was the Abscam scandal where an FBI agent trapped politicians using con-artists. Russell borrows merely that concept — and the use of a sheikh who isn’t a sheikh — and concocts the rest of his wild world without restraint or apology. His film tells us upfront, with disarming honesty, that only “some of this actually happened”, and later keeps repeating that we believe only what we choose to.
The result is silly and very overdone but undeniably exciting, like a cocktail made by an undergrad to slug a girl. The actors drink liberally from the vial of excessiveness, never holding back and frequently exaggerating their parts not just to great comic effect but to, oddly enough, shove us some genuine poignance when we least expect it. Christian Bale leads the pack and is fluctuatingly electric as Irving, a character who won me over more wholly (and more unlikely) than any in Bale’s very varied gallery. Amy Adams, as his mistress Sydney, turns on the sexual heat and doesn’t un-purr until her intentionally bad English accent stops. Jennifer Lawrence plays the loony wife with absolutely immaculate comic timing, and lovely expressions. And Bradley Cooper –mad, mad Bradley Cooper — takes the weaselly FBI agent and imbues him with so much blasted enthusiasm that it’s hard not to hate him. Even when he’s wearing curlers. Louis CK shows up as the least intimidating boss in the world, and is more than contrasted by Robert De Niro turning on menace like only a Corleone could.
Russell, of course, is the real huckster here: selling us a con movie where the plot takes a backseat to the characters, where restraint is chucked away and acting often forsaken for massively entertaining grandstanding, all ham and cheese. It’s almost as over the top as Russell himself with his dynamically striking style. His camera moves in flamboyant swooshes, entering a roomful of characters as if it were an uppercut aimed at their chins. His characters have elaborately absurd hair and dress up like, well, like they’re all playing dress-up. And they are. But it’s because they’re such damned good actors that this sloppy hot dog of a film comes together. It’s not gourmet, but there’s enough goddamned relish for you not to care.
I only wish he’d finished the ice-fishing story.
Rating: Four stars
First published Rediff, January 17, 2014