Conmen have always been good cinematic fodder. The glamourous life of those out to finagle money from those wealthier than them, whether they do it out of greed, for the thrill or because they have to, it’s always a joy to see them put their plans in motion. American Hustle is no different, while being very different at the same time.
Because Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) simply hustles to survive, it’s the only thing he knows how to do yet he loves what he does; a career conman, doing small time jobs under the radar and living comfortably on his spoils. After trying to con the wrong mark, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) he and his mistress and partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are forced to work for the feds, trying to bring down the corrupt, bribe taking mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Right from the off you can tell American Hustle won’t be your con movie in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, and if the opening salvo of the film – Some of this actually happened – didn’t convince you, a preening Bale perfecting his ludicrous combover in the mirror should get the message of the film across; everything is a lie, and a perfectly constructed one at that.
Not that the film is about the con, but rather the relationships between the main players (as it has been in director David O’Russell’s last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, whose casts have been combined here), all of whom you’re never sure of what side they’re on at any given time. Often films like this can pull the rug from under you with a cheap last minute change of heart from one of the cast, leaving you feeling short changed. Not so here. Every change of heart and switcheroo feels real after seeing the interpersonal shenanigans play out over the course of the film. In fact these relationships are so good that the main plot threatens to get lost in all the drama and is hastily reinserted just when you’ve nearly forgotten why these things are happening in the first place.
Yet with the never better cast all on top form it almost doesn’t matter with every excellent performance elevating the material. These are great characters in an average film. Christian Bale piles on the pounds and delivers one of his best performances yet, reminding you that he’s much more than just Batman; Amy Adams plays both femme fatale and jilted lover with aplomb (and a lot of cleavage); Jeremy Renner channels just the right amount of smarm and charm; Bradley Cooper gives another sterling turn that makes you wonder how this is the same guy from the Hangover films, and Jennifer Lawrence steals the show as Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn, who is a constant fly in his ointment. With these characters this would be a good film even without the con.
However, it’s also one that’s a bit too in love with itself and could easily lose 20 minutes from the runtime. As good as Jennifer Lawrence is, here entire character could have been omitted to no detriment to the film, instead focusing on the love triangle between Irving, Sydney and DiMaso, and the back and forth of allegiances becomes a bit tiresome before the end, but it’s never less than enjoyable watching the plans come to fruition.
A good film with excellent performances turns this into a pretty good film. Which is kind of a con, I guess. But a good one, where you benefit.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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