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20 December 2013updated 14 Sep 2021 3:27pm

David O Russell’s American Hustle: Back to reality

In styling his new film like a hard-edged Scorsese crime thriller, Silver Linings Playbook director David O Russell has lent gravity and depth to an otherwise gentle romantic comedy.

By Ryan Gilbey

American Hustle (15)
dir: David O Russell

Film-makers have been reluctant to find an alternative to the words “based on a true story”. (It wasn’t a story! It was somebody’s life!) But for American Hustle, the writer and director David O Russell comes up with an improvement – “Some of this actually happened” – which foreshadows the film’s theme: the intangibility of truth. The part we can be sure about is the Abscam scandal, a sting operation in the late 1970s in which FBI agents colluded with a con artist to snare bribe-happy politicians. Into this period setting, Russell inserts fictional characters, many of whom have reason to ask the same question: is this real? The answer is rarely straightforward.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a confidence trickster who pockets whopping commission fees on loans that he knows his customers have no hope of getting. His new girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), appoints herself his sidekick and poses to his clients as Lady Edith, a cut-glass dame with London banking connections. One of the poor saps she lures in is Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, his permed hair clinched into tiny springs), who turns out to be not such a dope after all. He’s an FBI agent who agrees to drop the charges against Irving and Sydney if they participate in his undercover operation.

This trio takes turns providing the voice-over, delivered as if from the pages of a cheap pulp novel (“Where would that wildness take me? I didn’t know but I was going to find out . . .”). Irving consents to Sydney’s suggestion that she should feign attraction to Richie to get the better of him but neither man can be sure whether she is exhibiting genuine desire.

Everyone is keeping their cards close to their chest: we learn early on, for example, that Irving has a stay-at-home spouse, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). David O Russell is fond of putting the 23-year-old Lawrence slightly out of her depth: she played a young widow in his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, but casting her now as the neglected Rosalyn is nuttier and more inspired. Her lack of self-consciousness makes her hazardous to Irving but vital to the movie. She is first seen with a tornado of vanilla hair and a red face from overexposure to a sunlamp that catches fire (her volatility is contagious: she also causes a microwave to explode). To the tips of those glued-on nails she taps on the kitchen countertop, she has an uninhibited realness to which everyone else in the film aspires. Overcome with passion in a nightclub cubicle, Sydney and Richie chant at one another: “No more fake shit!” A mob boss drawn into the operation is singing the same song. “We are real,” he says, menacingly. “We are a real organisation.”

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But how real is American Hustle? It’s one part Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and one part Ocean’s Eleven to two parts Boogie Nights; it takes a while to find the film beneath all that familiarity. If Russell has a trademark, it is his skill with an ensemble cast, reflected in the Oscar nominations that went to all four pugnacious main performers in Silver Linings Playbook, with Lawrence winning Best Actress.

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True to form, there is an electrifying rapport in American Hustle: the group dynamic keeps the film fizzing. But it seems at times that Russell is going undercover just like his characters. Unusually for an idiosyncratic director so far into a magnificent career, he keeps drawing from Martin Scorsese’s box of tricks here: the camera that swoops at high speed on to an actor’s face, the medleys of 1970s hits (Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, ELO), the flashbacks to nostalgic scenes of boyhood crime – what is Russell doing if not remaking Goodfellas in miniature?

Gradually, the point of all this is revealed. American Hustle doesn’t conform to one genre, though it has elements of farce, screwball, heist thriller and caper comedy. In dressing it up like a Scorsese-style crime movie, Russell brings an unusual weight and tension to what is, in essence, a gentle, rather lovely romantic comedy about tentative people trying to trust one another. The film is not without moments of physical jeopardy. The overriding danger, though, is that someone may engage prematurely those words that are as explosive as any bomb, or as final as a bullet: “I love you.”