American Hustle’s a likable, engaging picture that’s only likely to disappoint audiences who’ve had contact with its marketing. David O. Russell’s comic caper has been sold as a Scorsese-style bygone crime drama with a little gangster violence kneaded in. In reality it’s lighter and less substantial than that, a movie affected with a wry shtick that in the absence of compelling drama and realist characterisation, threatens to become an irritant long before the film’s end. You might say that’s the con perpetrated by the filmmakers on the expectant audience.
The original title, American Bullshit, better signals the film’s tone. It’s stocked with characters that never convince as real human beings but nevertheless entertain as rich and well used comic creations. Christian Bale’s con man, Amy Adam’s mock-English moll, Jennifer Lawrence’s scatty wife and the try hard FBI agent that’s ostensibly pulling their strings, made zealous and vapid by Bradley Cooper, are all faintly ridiculous but stay the right side of the line. The performances are committed, funny and at times so earnest, it’s as if they’ve been imported from a real drama, and it’s this zeal that keeps you watching as the sting unfolds in the background, never being as consequential or dominant as you might expect.
What frees Hustle from the constraints of its comedic treatment is O. Russell’s decision to appropriate the texture, rhythm and straight laced delivery of the gangster dramas it resembles; the result being something like a close relative who shares some of the preoccupations of the parent genre. As you’d expect from any period piece, particularly one interested in the corruption of the American dream, there’s broad attempts at tying the movie’s perfidious plotting and immoral characters to the era’s cultural baggage – Watergate, Vietnam, rampant inflation and economic decline. We’re invited to (fleetingly) reflect that Bale and his retinue represent the corrupt face of a degenerating society, where status is paramount but the values are, to borrow from that working title, bullshit.
The problem is that the film’s frivolous bent make it hard to accept it as a snapshot of an age. The movie’s rooted in historic events, “some of this actually happened” notes a typically wry caption, but O. Russell, who walks the tightrope between caper and comedy throughout, is more interested in the characters’ eccentricities and vainglorious dress, their affected personas, than social commentary. The result is something like a pastiche of a ‘70’s Sidney Lumet picture: well made, well performed but lacking the bite and shrewd intelligence of the older movies it reminds you of. In this way it’s a better movie about modern American filmmaking than the era it recreates.