In an ensemble piece like AMERICAN HUSTLE, the protagonist role often ends up split between characters or unclear. However, in the case of David O. Russell’s most recent effort it is quite clear where these central roles are placed: the characters’ hairstyles. They have centre stage, evolve, and certainly have some traumas and backstory. Fortunately enough, the hairspray keeping the elaborate bouffant in place is an entertaining and sharp black comedy that rarely sags.
Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a New York businessman and scam artist whose less legitimate ventures become inordinately successful when he teams up (professionally and romantically) with Amy Adams’ Sidney Prosser. Posing as ‘Lady Edith’, a London high-society type with “elite banking connections”, Sidney convinces a parade of helpless chumps to part with their cash. This attracts the attention of FBI agent Rich DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who offers the pair a route out of handcuffs by using their skills to help him entrap the mayor of Camden, NJ (Jeremy Renner) and a host of other high profile targets. Complicating matters is Irving’s young wife, the brash and forceful Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
Although the film is sharp, it doesn’t have pretensions of being cleverer than it actually is
Bale reminds us of what range he can have as an actor here, where he seems to be channeling some sort of antithesis to AMERICAN PSYCHO’s Patrick Bateman. His is perhaps the most memorable of the lead performances, with it being so against recent type, but across the board the actors maintain a nicely balanced tone. Throughout, Russell shows an eye for the sight gag: the vision of Cooper’s DiMaso with comically small hair rollers for his tight perm is funny, but also neatly undermines his status as an authority figure. He isn’t a professional sleuth, but a loose cannon lusting after Amy Adams’ Sidney.
Although assertions of the Scorsese-ness of AMERICAN HUSTLE aren’t wide of the mark, it perhaps feels more like a parallel universe OCEAN’S ELEVEN directed by the Coen Brothers. The faint absurdity underscoring the whole affair is delivered with the same sort of panache the Minnesotan brothers often manage. AMERICAN HUSTLE does tread over some well-worn ground (with the Scorsese nods underscored by the soundtrack choices and one enjoyable if distracting stunt cameo), and those who lament the mainstream nature of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK are likely to continue doing so. However, as a black comedy whirlwind it allows the main players to shine as the plot rattles past. Crucially, although the film is sharp, it doesn’t have pretensions of being cleverer than it actually is – a trap that often befalls films with a elaborate comedic scam at the core.
AMERICAN HUSTLE is light, but succeeds in entertaining with its plotting back and forths and slightly ridiculous characters. Much like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, the ability to tell a story with sufficient flair and engaging lead performances is where AMERICAN HUSTLE succeeds.