Directed by David O Russell
Writers: Eric Singer, David O Russell
Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, con artist
Amy Adams as a fellow con artist, Sydney Prosser, often pretending to be Lady Edith, an English woman
Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso, FBI agent
Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfleld, Irving’s wife
Jeremy Renner as Mayor Carmine Polito
Louise C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, Richie’s FBI boss
Robert DeNiro in a cameo as mob boss Taleggio
On with the Awards Season 2014. American Hustle is a strong contender with Gravity, Philomena and 12 Years A Slave as I write. Christian Bale is British (and attended my old school), and is playing American. Amy Adams is American and is pretending to be British, but turns out to be American.
L to R: Sydney, Richie, Carmine, Irving, Rosalyn
It’s the story of a con man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who are forced to work under the orders of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). They have to infiltrate the New Jersey mob and their political affiliates. Jeremy Renner plays the mayor, Carmine Polito, caught between the two sides. Jennifer Lawrence is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn.
Of the Academy Award contestants I’ve seen, it’s the most conventional popular American movie. That probably won’t harm it. I was astounded when Argo got best picture last time, to me a ludicrous and dull decision against The Life of Pi and Les Miserables (I thought Lincoln a non-starter). Anna Karenina wasn’t even nominated in the best picture category and was my choice. I reviewed neither Argo nor Lincoln. Bradley Cooper was nominated for best actor in 2013, and Amy Adams as best supporting actress. In 2014, Christian Bale, Amy Adams are both nominated in “Best” categories and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in “Best supporting.” Bale deserves something perhaps for being unrecognizable with his prosthetic paunch. Bradley Cooper’s part is so large, that I’d say there were three full lead roles. It’s too big a part to be “supporting.” By the time some read this, all will be decided. Four of the major contestants in various categories are based on true stories: 12 Years A Slave, Captain Philips and Philomena very closely, this in spite of the opening screen claim, much more loosely.
The con artists: Sydney and Irving
The film is a con man crime caper. It has the predictable twist ending, with the equally predictable explanation narrative (here in voice over), “And this, suckers, is how we did it.” As such it’s undoubtedly quarter or half an hour too long at 138 minutes. This sort of film works best at 100 to 110 minutes, which is a magic length. As all four main actors have nominations, let’s say straight away that acting is the major strength. As one online review said “This is a three star movie with five star performances.” I couldn’t agree more. Robert DeNiro who has a cameo as the Mafia boss (who speaks Arabic) doesn’t get listed on the credits, but it’s perfect casting because he brings the weight of all his past roles into the character, causing instant terror, even if he is named after a type of cheese, Tallegio.
The political theme is the pursuit of corruption, and Richie is obsessed with it or rather his own career. We’re left with the feeling that Mayor Carmine is genuinely a good guy, means well, and knows what he has to do to deliver his promises. Richie the FBI guy is a fascinating role as the obsession takes him over, and he becomes equally infatuated and consumed with lust for Sydney, and ends up in coke-fuelled violence. Rosalyn is one of the best ditziest and blonde-joke sexist roles. Hilariously done and she lights up the screen and scene every time she appears. Sydney (odd name for a woman) exudes sexuality from every pore. But she’s faking it. And they all (and we all) believe her. Irving nearly has a heart attack several times.
The original music is by Danny Elfman, congratulations because like the best original soundtrack work, I didn’t even notice it. What leaps out is the outstanding use of “found: music from the 70s and earlier, prompting comparisons to Martin Scorsese. The choices are so good. If Jennifer Lawrence gets an award for her most hilarious part in the movie, the wife, I can guarantee they’ll play the clip where she mimes to Live & Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings. Then there’s A Horse With No Name while Irving arranges his glued comb-over hair. Plus the scene where Amy Adams as Irving’s partner pulls Rosalyn from the gangster into the ladies loo, is hugely enlivened by White Rabbit in a version by Mayssa Karaa that I’d never heard before.
Rosalyn (L) and Sydney (R)
Long Black Road by ELO introduces the meeting with Tallegio’s lawyer. I Feel Love by Donna Summer plays while Richie and Sydney get into dirty dancing. There’s a wonderful drunken scene where Irving and Mayor Carmine male bond by singing Delilah. It seemed like all my favourite 70s songs were lining up to be played … I Saw The Light, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Jean Genie … I came straight back and decided to get the soundtrack album. Great curated soundtrack.
Is there an Oscar for hairdressing? Irving’s comb-over, Richie’s fake curly hair with tiny rollers, Rosalyn’s elaborate curly bits, Mayor Carmine’s plastic looking Sopranos DA, Sydney as a sex siren while still in hair rollers. This film would walk the hairdressing award. And there probably is one, and it will. Costume is great too. Amy Adams must wear half a dozen more dresses with similar plunge necklines going almost to the navel. (* Note: 16 February – it just picked up the BAFTA Award for best hairdressing, so I was right!)
Rosalyn cosies up with the Mob
So it’s a film that’s very well acted, and professional in every aspect. It’s funny. It’s a bit too long. For years I would argue that the Oscar was designed for a successful, superbly done COMMERCIAL film, because that’s what mass cinema is: material that will appeal enough to have all sorts of people crowding in to a cinema on a wet evening and going out with a buzz of enjoyment. The awards should not be going to the modern equivalents of Last Year at Marienbad or Theorem. But last year and this year, I’m changing my mind about conventional commerciality. Like Argo this is a very well made but conventional film. 12 Years A Slave is a cinematic and historical work of art. Philomena is an acting masterclass (Judi Dench is nominated) as well as a first rate script (a category it’s up for). Captain Philips has completely believable central performances in a film twanging with tension. Gravity is innovative and an SFX dream. Being a very good, well directed and acted con-artist caper should not be enough to compete with them, and that’s all this is in the end.
This review is 17th January. I promise not to alter it when the Awards come in, but I will add a paragraph when they do. I hope it’s not saying how wrong I was.