American Hustle (15)
Dir: David O Russell
With: Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence
Runtime: 138 minutes
SET in the 1970s, David O Russell's crime caper is one big jukebox of delights. Press 001 for blow-dries so enormous they could house nests of dormice; select 002 for medallions, flares and borderline criminal perms; 003 for a killer soundtrack; and 004 for a story that plays out like The Sting with added bosoms and comb-overs.
Russell, helmer of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, has gathered actors from both hit movies - among them Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence - and given them the ways and means to have a ball. The result is a rough kind of diamond: it can be self-indulgent, it is occasionally heavy-footed, and at 138 minutes it is in need of a trim. But it is a diamond nevertheless. This is film-making at its slick, smart, funny, and gorgeous-looking best, a Saturday Night Fever of a movie to banish January's Blue Mondays. Outside of miraculously returning to the same weight you were in the 1970s (or even pre-Christmas), you could not be in for more of a gas.
Very loosely inspired by a true story - or as the opening legend puts it "Some of this actually happened" - American Hustle is another of Russell's blue collar operas in which ordinary sorts struggle heroically and humorously with life's trials.
This time, the protagonists are not boxers pummelling drug addiction (The Fighter) or a family struggling to deal with mental illness (Silver Linings Playbook). These are con artists, scammers, hustlers. They are still people trying to make their way in the world, but in their case more by foul means than fair. And that includes the ones meant to be on the right side of the law.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) can turn his hand to many things, among them taking upfront fees for loans he never hands over, and selling dodgy art. Although a wrong 'un, Irving is one of life's lovers, not fighters. He loves his adopted son, he loves himself and his food (witness that comb-over and gut), and he loves his mistress, Sydney (Amy Adams). His wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) loves the money he brings in, but otherwise she can take him or leave him.
FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is similarly a fan of self-love. Believing he is cruelly under-rated at work, Richie is desperately seeking promotion. So when he lands a couple of little fish in the form of Irving and Sydney, he plans to use them as bait to catch bigger fry, among them a local politician (Jeremy Renner). A you scratch-my-chest-hair, I'll-scratch-yours deal is offered and grudgingly accepted.
Russell, co-writing the screenplay with Eric Singer, thus starts the merry-go-round whirling. Richie, advised by Sydney and Irving, sets up his plan, all the while trying to keep his bosses in the dark. Rosalyn is suspicious, and insanely jealous of Sydney. Richie is falling for Sydney and Sydney is falling out of love with Irving for not leaving his wife.
Meanwhile, the costumes keep coming, the soundtrack rips along, and the running jokes - favourite devices of Russell's - break into a sprint.
The result is a film that plays like a game of hide the lady. Watch carefully as Russell moves the cards faster and faster. Take a punt every now and then as to what is going on, only to see him to rearrange the cards once more. It is ridiculous but beguiling.
Russell might have set his tale in the decade that taste forgot, but he crafts his scenes beautifully and meticulously. No one just rocks up to a nightclub, they emerge from a cloud of street steam, fake fur ruffling and lip gloss shimmering. Characters do not simply walk down corridors, they model strut. Just to keep matters further in the family, Russell finds a spot for Robert De Niro, the dad in Silver Linings, who here plays a mob boss. Again, this is not just any old Mafia cameo, but the best De Niro has done.
Fittingly for a film all about attitude, about faking it until you make it, American Hustle screams swagger and confidence. If it was not so good in general the odd flaw now and then, an overripe line, a theme repeated once too often, would not stand out so much. Still, the slips are easily forgiven.
Bale and Cooper are terrific, with the former the Willy Loman of the con, the latter Narcissus with a badge. But as is becoming the norm with Russell, it is the women who rule all before them. Adams is as soft and gently tragic as Lawrence is loud and monstrous, but both rip the bones out of their characters, with Lawrence coming on like Abigail in the party to end all parties.
After a lull before the third act, Russell roars back in fine style. Such is the speed and polish of the denouement it is all a body can do to keep up and answer the question famously posed by Miss Aretha Franklin. To wit: Who's Zoomin' Who? Frankly, when you are having this much fun, who zoomin' cares?