American Hustle - Blu-ray Review

'When you look past the ‘70s haircuts and garish wardrobe, there’s not nearly as much of substance here as Russell would have you believe'.

Being a story of con artists and FBI stings, the idea of pulling the wool over people’s eyes is central to American Hustle’s premise; but the deception seems, at least in part, to have drifted into the craft of David O. Russell’s film. In short, when you look past the ‘70s haircuts and garish wardrobe, there’s not nearly as much of substance here as Russell would have you believe.

What is undoubtedly true is that those retro ‘dos and duds largely belong to some of the most skillful names currently at the top of Hollywood’s talent list. Most impressive are the female contingent with Jennifer Lawrence stealing every scene she features in, her performance demonstrating even further her chameleon-like powers as an actress and providing many of the film’s most memorable moments. Amy Adams gives the most mature and consistent turn here, balancing well the complexities of the simultaneous and conflicting roles her character takes on throughout the plot.

The men are less impressive, but only relative to the excellence achieved by their female co-stars. Christian Bale continues to show remarkable levels of literal self-transformation for his roles, sporting a paunch most other actors would rely on prosthetics for; his performance here is entertaining and solid, at times pleasingly understated, although regularly feeling too much like a Robert De Niro impersonation. Opposite Bale, Bradley Cooper is fine, showing occasional flashes of brilliance but doing little else to win me over to his ever-growing “serious actor” fan club of which Russell is apparently the president. Jeremy Renner also gives a winning if unremarkable performance which, if nothing else, sets up the actor for more roles outside of action thrillers and comic book adaptations.

American Hustle’s problems germinate in two key areas. The first is narrative, specifically a purposeful one. It’s hard to know for much of the film exactly who Russell wants us to see as the heroes and villains of his piece, and this ambiguity knocks some serious credibility out of his final act and epilogue. Stating at the start of his film that “Some of this actually happened” (the story is based to varying degrees on the FBI’s Abscam operation of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) only makes things less clear, almost arrogantly so. In terms of transforming a historical event into a dramatised piece of entertainment, Russell can only be seen to be partially successful. Too often American Hustle leans heavily on the talents of its cast to deflect from the fact that Russell isn’t really going anywhere with the story. The bloated running time, only ten minutes shy of two and a half hours, just makes this lack of focus even more of an issue.

The second major issue is one of originality. American Hustle has clear progenitors in the work of several other filmmakers, but by far the most blatant influence is Martin Scorsese. A huge amount of what we see here draws on the likes of Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, but Russell never manages to make American Hustle feel like much more than a light imitation of what Scorsese has already done more than once and much more successfully. Russell, for example, chooses to have his film open in media res, but you get the sense he only does this because that’s what Scorsese or Tarantino (another prominent influence) would do, not because it makes his film any better (on reflection, from a plotting perspective his chosen moment of opening doesn’t make much sense at all). Russell’s Scorsesean soundtrack punctuated by the likes of Elton John and The Bee Gees - all that’s missing is a Rolling Stones track - is more successful, making sense alongside the film’s ‘70s setting and also giving rise to one of Lawrence’s most memorable scenes set to Wings’ Live And Let Die.

All of this adds up to a film which too often places style over substance. If it wasn’t for its accomplished cast, American Hustle could easily have ended up a disarray of confused plotting, overused influences and undercooked characters. Whilst regularly entertaining, Russell’s film is never as substantial as he clearly thinks it is, and certainly doesn’t deserve to achieve the long lasting impact of the work of those from whom he has superabundantly drawn.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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