Surviving the Dream: American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)

During the deep freeze that hit North America last week I watched a news report on how the homeless men and women of Washington DC were handling the extreme cold. They huddled together, warming their hands on cups of tea given out by a local charity. One man, beaming a toothless smile, said “It’s the survival of the fittest, man!” As much as America is a land of opportunity and the American Dream remains a dream for the Jay Gatsby’s amongst us; for many it is a dog-eat-dog struggle. Whether this is a fight against the injustice of homelessness, the harshness of Mother Nature, the feds, the mob, or even yourself, it is about doing what you have to do to survive.

Survival is the name of the game in American Hustle. The film twists the familiar formula of a crime/heist caper, throws in some dark comedy, a great soundtrack, a high-class cameo and four very strong performances from the lead pairings. The words ‘some of this actually happened’ appear on a black screen as the lights dim. This tongue-in-cheek jibe at movies ‘based on real events’ sets the tone for the film as a whole. Whilst it is loosely based upon the ABSCAM FBI sting operation of the late 70s, which convicted a number of prominent corrupt politicians, at no point does it take itself too seriously. Oliver Stone won’t be happy but most audiences will have a great time. They will delight in the fashion, the big hair, the music and the glitz of late 70s New York and New Jersey.

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The hair and make-up department really earned their salt on this production.

Let’s be honest…Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale are well known to be amongst the best-looking men in Hollywood.  However, American Hustle opens with the rotund, largely bald con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) sticking a fluffy toupee to his head before organising a delicately elaborate combover. Later in the film, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) is at home with his mother and appears with rollers in his hair to maintain his quite magnificent man-perm. Two Hollywood pretty boys they are not. Their comical appearance and manner mean that we laugh both at them and with them which is unusual for the lead males in a crime film. You wouldn’t dare laugh at Joe Pesci would you…?

Where the film truly departs from the Goodfellas of this world is that the real power lies with two very strong women. As much as the men would like to think they’re running the show that just isn’t the case. Whereas women are usually chained to the sink, make babies and are driven to drink by their husbands, the characters played by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence in this film are feisty, independent, courageous and hugely entertaining.

Rosenfeld’s partner in crime and mistress is Sydney Prosser (Adams); a rolling stone, continually reinventing herself to survive, she adopts an English accent as the sultry and irrefutably trustworthy banking specialist ‘Lady Edith Greensley’. Unlike the notorious Bonnie & Clydes and Dillingers of American crime history who took money from the establishment, Rosenfeld/Prosser prey upon the weak and the needy. People who are already in the hole and desperate for a second chance are promised that their five thousand dollar deposit will soon be 50. Not so much the survival of the fittest but the most unscrupulous and conniving.

Adams and Bale
Irving draws attention to the plunging neckline of one of Lady Edith’s many revealing dresses. Goodness gracious.

Despite their moral shortcomings, it is difficult to truly dislike a couple who are brought together by the music of Duke Ellington. The film bounces along to big band jazz as well as some of the late-70s finest pop-rock – Elton John, ELO and Wings included.

Cue Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s quirky, clumsy, clairvoyant wife who often sets fire to her own kitchen. In one stand-out scene she belts out an emotional version of ‘Live and Let Die’ which teeters between being wildly entertaining and heartbreaking. Her character is a firecracker and she has the talent to pull off a magnificently nuanced performance. She really does steal the show.

Lawrence - Hustle
As mad as a box of frogs but a big heart, big hair and big personality.

The high times lead by Irving and Sydney do not last as they cross paths with FBI agent DiMaso. Although inexperienced and power-hungry, he is enthusiastic to the point of being a little mad and it is his harebrained scheme that sets out to expose politicians taking bribes for a part in the regeneration of Atlantic City by the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Family man Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is the only genuinely honourable and forthright character in the film. He and Irving form a bromance based on their common upbringing, there are split allegiances, betrayals, tears shed and some hair even falls out of place. But I don’t want to spoil too much…

You will leave the cinema smiling as this is a very enjoyable film. I think there have been ‘better’ films made this year; 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club are more important given their subject matter, Gravity is more visually striking and Philomena has Judi Dench in it and therefore is tremendous. But, none of those films nominated for Best Picture (that I have seen so far) are as purely entertaining as American Hustle. Director David O. Russell and his cast, many of whom he has collaborated with on previous endeavours, clearly had a whale of a time making this film and you will enjoy seeing it.

(All images courtesy of Sony Pictures)