Friday, 27 December 2013

American Hustle (2013)

David O Russell pays tribute to the art of the con job in American Hustle

The FBI (mostly Bradley Cooper) apprehend a gifted conman (Christian Bale) and his accomplice/mistress (Amy Adams) in the act and enlists their expertise in a larger scheme to target corrupt officials (headed by Jeremy Renner). Hilarity ensues when this scheme gets too large for their comfort and capability.

The con job and the grifter occupy a special place in crime films. While on the wrong side of the law, the grifter is a typically sympathetic character whose ingenuity, perseverance, and working class background are celebrated while their marks, typically the rich or the greedy, are considered fair game.

As the film’s title suggests, Russell’s gimmick in American Hustle is to present professional grifters and their confidence tricks as an allegory for the very American preoccupation with self-improvement and the reinvention of the self. The second gimmick is to approach the police sting as a confidence trick played by cops instead of criminals, and to tell the FBI Abscam sting operation as such. The twist in American Hustle is that after a certain point, practically everyone is out of their depth, doesn’t realise it, and continues spinning their madcap plans with utter confidence. The audience is in on the twist, which makes their increasing confidence all the more hilarious.

Story-wise, Russell retells the Abscam operation like a shaggy dog story: a charming if over‑long yarn laden with visual distractions, narrative red herrings, silly gags, and shout‑outs to the excesses of 70s music and fashion. Yet behind all this frivolity and entertainment is an ensemble-wide study on the nature of self-fashioning as confidence trick and self-delusion, and as an American condition.

If anything, American Hustle confirms my suspicions that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are the best comic actors in Hollywood right now, and that this is the most ambitious and accessible film David O Russell has made so far.

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