That 70s swindel: American Hustle review

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American Hustle. Image: Columbia Pictures.
American Hustle. Image: Columbia Pictures.
American Hustle. Image: Columbia Pictures.

American Hustle
Dir. David O Russell
***

It’s easy to be a little star struck going into David O Russell’s latest film, American Hustle. It’s understandable, too. The director has managed to assemble a phenomenal cast once more following his previous successes with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and to his credit he has yet again managed to coax the very best out of his actors. The film is littered with superb performances, from a heavily be-gutted Christian Bale to a fabulously flighty Jennifer Lawrence, but it ultimately struggles with a lack of substance behind its considerable sheen.

Based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 80s, American Hustle tells the story of Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a pair of con artists who are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and forced to assist in a government-led sting. The operation starts small but quickly escalates, eventually growing to involve numerous high profile politicians, the mafia, a fake sheikh and millions of dollars in government money.

Things are complicated further by the involvement of Rosenfeld’s volatile wife Rosalyn (Lawrence), and the apparent relationship that develops between Prosser and DiMaso, with the typically excellent Adams managing to play both the role of vulnerable romantic and swaggering scammer with aplomb.

Besides its dazzling array of acting talent however, there’s a slightness to American Hustle’s tale of corruption and deception. Bale and Lawrence in particular provide ample laughs throughout, but where previous Russell films have balanced comedy and tragedy admirably, the screwball antics of American Hustle’s cast never quite evoke the pathos necessary to elevate it toward greatness.

Those willing to overlook these shortcomings in characterisation however are treated to quite the visual feast. We’re initially given a title card informing us of the setting – New York, 1978 – but it’s an unnecessary aid. The 70s milieu is unmistakable here, as pervasive as it is exquisitely observed. Everything from the ELO-featuring soundtrack, to the ‘brorange’ palette, to the hair – and oh my is there a lot of hair in American Hustle – is brilliantly integrated with the film’s aesthetic. It might be shallow, but it’s certainly spectacular.

Indeed, there’s a lot to love about American Hustle. It’s fun and flashy, it’s impeccably acted, and it looks and sounds perfect – it’s worth saying again just how stunning the attention to period detail is. I just wish the film had more to say on Lawrence’s underlying anxiety, or the circumstances that drive Cooper’s FBI agent so readily toward adultery and assault. These issues are present, hinted at every now and then, but like so much of the ugliness in American Hustle they’re concealed behind gleaming medallions and beneath elaborate hairpieces.

As a purely comic caper, Russell’s latest is entertaining, but it aspires to be more than that without providing its characters with the requisite depth. As such, not even a string of stellar performances can prevent American Hustle from feeling somewhat empty.

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