American Hustle


Why David O. Russell’s winner lost at the Oscars

There’s something grimly ironic about American Hustle coming away from the 86th Academy Awards empty-handed. For a while there it looked like a winner, entering the Oscars on 2 March with 10 nominations (the most, equal with Gravity, of any film on show), three Golden Globes wins, three BAFTAs and various critics-association gongs tucked under its sequinned belt. OK, it was third favourite to win Best Picture but, at the very least, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Costume Design appeared to be in the bag. And then… nada.

After a four-hour ceremony consisting of hyperactive showmanship, lip-smacking outfits and fake smiles popping like flashbulbs, David O. Russell’s celebrated picture, a film about con artists which offered 138 minutes of the same, shuffled away from the Dolby Theater with its pockets empty. Nothing is as it seems, nobody can be trusted… least of all the Academy. Maybe it was because Oscar rarely favours comedy over drama, with the other notable loser on the night being Martin Scorsese’s similarly screwy The Wolf Of Wall Street, left with zero wins from five nominations.

Perhaps Jennifer Lawrence’s fierce, vulnerable, hilarious, sexy, poignant performance as a brash moll missed out because she won Best Actress last year for Russell’s previous movie, Silver Linings Playbook, and two Oscars at 23 years of age is greedy. In all likelihood, Michael Wilkinson’s gorgeously garish threads lost out to Catherine Martin’s voluminous wardrobe for The Great Gatsby by a handful of votes, and the same plausibly applies to Eric Singer and Russell’s insane, zany script being bested by Spike Jonze’s melancholy Her.

So was American Hustle hustled by the Academy? Or were the cries of ‘snub’ a journalistic scam, conjuring a story to plug the emptiness of the mundane truth: Russell’s movie missed out narrowly in an exceedingly strong year. Whatever the reality – and we have no way of knowing as the Academy chooses not to release voting tallies – it’s worth remembering that form is temporary, class is permanent. Russell’s seventh film is a champion and will enthral viewers for years to come.

Based, loosely, on the true story of the Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s and early ’80s (‘Some of this actually happened’ reads the opening title card), American Hustle introduces Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), overweight, self-pitying, his life top-to-bottom flimflam, from his elaborate hairpiece to his business dealings in fake art and fraudulent loans. Decidedly small fry, Rosenfeld meets Albuquerque stunner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a pool party and the pair team up in bedroom and boardroom.

This is big time, Prosser posing as Lady Edith, replete with English accent and elite banking connections, while Rosenfeld plays a consultant able to secure fantastic loans for the schmucks she reels in. But the stakes are about to rise again. Ensnared by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, his energy as tightly coiled as his perm), Irving and Prosser are forced to aid the government in orchestrating a prodigious scam to bring down the mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, doing his best work since The Hurt Locker).

As if entering the world of Congress, powerbrokers and the East Coast mafia – enter Robert De Niro in a steel-eyed cameo – isn’t dangerous enough, the pair’s tottering house of cards is further threatened by Rosenfeld’s stay-at-home wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), who knows just enough to get everyone killed.

With its exuberant crime story decorated by voiceover, jukebox hits and a careening camera, American Hustle has been compared (sometimes favourably, sometimes not) to Scorsese’s gangster movies. But there’s a shrill, unhinged quality to the action that is all Russell’s own, the director happy to linger on colourful details or take in funny asides or luxuriate in an amusing flashback – often at the detriment of the plot’s momentum.

If Tarantino is cinema’s hip-hop artist, Russell is its jazz musician, his movies loose and spontaneous as he ricochets here, freeforms there and bops wherever he damn well pleases. This, married to larger-than-life characters who are forever on the verge of spectacular implosion, has won the filmmaker critics and plaudits alike, but never has his style been so suited to his material as in American Hustle.

Oscars or not, the film is a blast of invigorating entertainment, 20 minutes too long but stuffed to bursting with brazen technique, riotous performances, startling clothes and pompadours, plunging cleavages and endlessly quotable dialogue (“Science oven!”). It perhaps doesn’t have the depth or significance that the American in the title implies, but moments of pain, love and bromance anchor the madness, while the shady nature of everyone on display as they shamelessly scrabble for a better life suggests government and gangsters are two sides of the same coin: the American Dream sold down the river.

Extras comprise a short but pap-free Making Of and 20-odd minutes of deleted/extended scenes – including a longer cut of Jennifer Lawrence’s showstopping ‘Live And Let Die’ mime.

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