Actors gone wild – American Hustle

american-hustle-posters-sonyTHE WORDS ‘Written By’ can be very misleading. The credits astride ‘Written By’ in American Hustle run David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer; this is very misleading. As far as I can gather there is no script, no written word on a page beyond a basic plot outline. American Hustle is a film very much in love with itself, so much so that it dispenses with a script. It loves its setting, it loves its disco dancing, it loves its screaming shirts and navel-exposing slits, but more than anything it loves its actors. My God is this a film in love with its actors. Leave your restraint at the door because it will not rear its demure little head in this picture, oh no.

Hyperbole aside, there is a lot of acting(!) and, more significantly, improvising in American Hustle. There is so much improvising that when Christian Bale suggested to Russell that it might damage the cohesion of the narrative, the director expressed his indifference with unrepeatable expletives. The result is an unfocused arrangement of colourful characters thrown together in variously capersome scenarios that ostensibly revolve around the Abscam scandal; the film makes a point of informing us that “some of this actually happened”. What might have been a contemporarily relevant analysis of the ethics of federal practice (spying on the Internet and all) becomes a noisy cavalcade of big hair and sweet 70s grooves. There are a few token references to the murky nature of the operation but there is little room for moral ambiguity beneath the weight of acting.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course; the film is sharp, well-edited and bitingly witty, the performances are, happily, all-round fantastic and the direction is snappy, gliding on a luminescent trail of bad wallpaper and combovers. Bale piled on 50 pounds and herniated a disc (he’s now permanently three inches shorter) for the role and his dedication shows, exuding a weird couch potato charisma that belies his slumming conman appearance. Bradley Cooper continues to step outside the shadow of The Hangover, playing a twitching, hungry FBI agent looking for a big score, showcasing natural comic timing.

Jeremy Renner (rocking a Liberace hairdo) and Jennifer Lawrence also impress, though Lawrence looks like she’s playing dress-up with her mother’s clothes; the character seems more catered for an older actress. Amy Adams, with the possible exception of Bale, is the only actor in the film who shows any sense of moderation, imbuing her role with a sense of quiet potency and self-assuredness. Most of the big laughs come from a stone-faced Louis C.K. playing Cooper’s overseer; the chemistry between the two is a wonder to behold. There’s also a brief cameo that momentarily threatens to raise the threat level to ‘existent’ but it soon dissolves back into shenanigans and escapades. Again, nothing wrong with that, but we end up just wanting more.

The film is good, certainly; it’s an immensely enjoyable two hours and 20 minutes that zips along with a spring in its step, but that’s really all there is to it: A noisy couple of hours of good fun. For a film that so worships the style of Martin Scorsese, American Hustle loses sight of its narrative too often to be considered among his canon. Scorsese always has a handle on his stories, even in more character-driven films like Raging Bull, and Russell could learn a thing or two from the master in future. Then again, with 10 Oscar nominations for this film under his belt, why would Russell open his ears now?

Check out the official trailer below: