Crimes of Fashion
There are some film-makers whose fondest dream is to oversee a franchise of billion-grossing summer blockbusters and, basically, retire to their own solid gold private island. Others seek gold of a different kind – they are the ones more interested in credibility, critical acclaim, and the odd gong. The very lucky ones amongst this latter group find their way into what I call the Gong Club: that elite group who, it seems to me, are permanently under observation by the people who decide the awards shortlists.
Tom Hanks has been in the Gong Club for a couple of decades now; others, like Judi Dench, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and so on, are similarly long-term members. A recent addition to their ranks seems to be the writer and director David O Russell – 2010's The Fighter did terribly well, 2012's Silver Linings Playbook landed a Royal Flush of the acting Oscar nominations, and his new movie American Hustle is generating serious buzz for this year's awards.
Various familiar faces from his previous movies show up here, starting with Christian Bale. Bale plays late-70s con man Irving Rosenfeld, who embarks on a breathless romance with ex-dancer Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They are initially very successful in persuading people to simply give them money as non-refundable application fees for non-existent savings opportunities, but this particular good thing comes to an end when they are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
However, Richie offers them a deal: if they help him entrap and arrest enough corrupt businessmen and politicians, he will let them go free. Irving and Sydney have serious misgivings, but eventually realise they don't have much choice. And so begins a frankly bizarre sting operation, involving a fake sheikh, millions of dollars of the FBI's money, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner), and Irving's loose-cannon wife (Jennifer Lawrence)...
American Hustle has, for the most part, received extremely positive notices, and I can sort of see why: it does bear more than a passing resemblance to several other very respectable films. The true-life con-job angle, not to mention the late 70s setting, inevitably recalls the very successful Argo (and, indeed, Ben Affleck was attached to this project as director for a while), while another major focus of the plot – the lives and relationships of people caught up in criminality of different kinds – brings with it a definite whiff of Scorsese (Russell's deft handling of a classic pop and rock soundtrack adds to this).
And in many ways American Hustle lives up to the standards of the films it is trying to imitate. This is a big, ambitious movie with a lot going on in it, and Russell marshals the various strands of the story with considerable skill – it works both as a caper comedy-thriller and a serious drama, if never quite both at the same time. The cast is largely made up of very talented performers really going for it with meaty, rounded parts, and there are many great moments, some visually arresting, some funny, some surprisingly gripping – a brief cameo from a thankfully on-form Robert de Niro is genuinely chilling.
On the other hand, I couldn't quite shake the impression that this is a film going for it just a little too much, just a little too often. A 70s setting is a well-worn backdrop for a certain kind of American movie, and here the trappings appear to be getting a little out of control. At the start of the film, we meet the main characters and their defining features – Bale (insanely elaborate comb-over), Cooper (ostentatious perm), Adams (wardrobe slashed to the navel and beyond), Renner (gargantuan quiff) and Lawrence (huge hair). All of these things were just a bit too OTT to be completely credible, for me; the film seemed to be waving them in my face somehow. There's quite a serious scene developing the relationship between Adams and Cooper, but both of them have their hair in curlers throughout, which inevitably undercuts it. Some of the performers also occasionally give the impression of getting stuck into their roles with a bit too much relish, as well – their characters are frequently as grotesque and unlikely as their personal grooming.
Perhaps there's a touch of this in the plotting, too: as I said, it's a sign of the film's ambition that it sets out to fuse a fairly complex thriller plotline with an ensemble character drama, but I even got a sense of wild abandonment on the part of the film-makers here as well – an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, with moments of comedy, romance, and drama piling up on top of each other as the story continues.
This is an enjoyable film, but not really one notable for its sense of restraint. I found watching it to be not entirely unlike my visit to the breakfast buffet of a major Las Vegas casino hotel several years ago – there's nothing wrong with eating eggs and bacon, nor with eating waffles, nor with eating cowboy biscuits, or sausages, or pancakes. Eating large quantities of all of them in one sitting, on the other hand, is likely to produce distinct and not always pleasant sensations. So it is with American Hustle's let's-do-everything-and-do-it-A-LOT approach. At least this time I don't have myself to blame for it. A good film, I think, but not really disciplined enough to make the best use of its various assets.