Hollywood, you’ve been hustled by Russell!

Every so often you’ll order a meal that arrives consisting of all the ingredients promised on the menu (in this case, a dollop of Goodfellas, a smidgen of Casino, a pinch of Carlito’s Way and a sprinkle of Saturday Night Fever). It even smells exactly how you’d imagine, but when it comes to the taste, something isn’t quite right. You’re left speculating what it is that’s wrong and whether you should finish the meal. And so it goes with David O Russell’s (director of The Fighter and last year’s affable Silver Linings Playbook) American Hustle.

The opening is elegant enough. Bale’s character Irving, a con-artist whose physique has clearly seen better days (continuing his odd preoccupation with weight fluctuation Bale piled on the pounds here – in contrast to dropping them like he did for Russell’s The Fighter) assesses himself in the mirror before carefully arranging his comb-over so as to conceal his bald pate with a fake hair piece. The film continues along these lines with a convoluted tapestry of cover-ups, false identities, lies and characters double-crossing each other.

Irving’s small-time art fraud and loan scams escalate into the big time when he and his lover/partner-in-crime Sydney (Adams) are given an ultimatum by federal agent DiMaso (Cooper): either collaborate with the feds to expose government officials working with the mob (in order to return Atlantic City to its former gambling glory) or do a long sentence for their crimes.

The clincher comes in the form of a New Jersey senator Carmine Polito (Renner) who, despite his willingness to take money from disreputable sources and work alongside the mob in order to get the job done, appears to be a warm family man who genuinely cares about getting his community back on its feet. Irving is torn between honouring his agreement with the feds and keeping the conflicting promises he has made to his partner/lover, and also his loyalties to his wife (Lawrence) and their son.

Most have likely been fooled by the film’s appropriation of subject matter, era, soundtrack and aesthetics that are associated in our collective conscious with a handful of far greater films. However, any similarities to the work of Martin Scorsese, PT Anderson, Brian Di Palma or the like are strictly skin-deep. When DeNiro cameos – further consolidating the film’s illusion of prestige – he punctures the bubble of smugness that encapsulates the younger performances, arriving like the elder statesman into a smog of over-acting and misguided self-congratulation. He appears to be lacking a compass in this alien landscape.

No doubt this is a good cast, most likely doing as they’ve been asked and navigating by instinct. However, without the necessary structure to contain this, especially over such a bloated running time – unjustifiably long for a plot so anaemic – the cast flail and tumble into caricature and cliché.

I constantly found myself wondering who or what I should be caring about. Only Irving and Carmine’s unlikely friendship answered this even remotely. Had their sub-plot of mutual admiration, deception and betrayal been allowed to form the emotional core, we’d be talking about a better film.

The irony, of course, lies in a story about hustlers who make a tidy sum selling fake art in a film that has similarly gone on to dupe not just cinema goers out of their ticket money, but almost the entire critical establishment out of their credibility. If that’s the meta-hustle that Russell intended to pull off, then I doff my cap to him; his ‘statement’ is clearly valid and worthy of its coming gold statues. What’s more likely though is that all of the ingredients have been hastily thrown together and woefully undercooked.

American Hustle (11)
Dir: David O Russell; USA, crime/comedy, 2013, 138 mins; Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
Premiered  January 23
Playing Nationwide