We've been here before, in this territory of small-time conmen stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, in these 1970s where everything seemed possible in an American cinema that was more complicated and closer to real life than anything seen before. The only thing is, American Hustle may be set in late-1970s New York City and tell a story of struggling anti-heroes, human beings who took a different, darker path, but we're not in the 1970s anymore. And David O. Russell's fictionalised take on a real-life episode of the era, transformed by the director from an original script by Eric Singer, is too enamoured of the possibilities, of the freedom and the desire of 1970s cinema to recognise that he's trying to reinvent the wheel and do again what has already been done better.

     American Hustle wants to be the ultimate seventies movie, a head-on collision of classical Hollywood and modern auteur drive, romantic comedy, crime drama and character study alchemically melding into a perfect distillation of American low-life glamour and blue-collar nobility. The key premise comes from a heist movie and is Scorsesian in its scope and driving themes (ambition, escape, making it big): small-time con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are strong-armed by ambitious FBI agent Richie di Maso (Bradley Cooper) into an elaborate set-up designed to entrap corrupt politicians, with New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as their unwitting entry point. But Mr. Russell seems to be more interested in the boisterous love triangle that develops into a twisted "comedy of remarriage", one that seems straight out of a film by the equally cinephile Peter Bogdanovich: Richie desires Sydney, who is Irving's mistress, but her feelings for them lead her to spurn them both for the duration of the con, with Irving's actual wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) as an "interloper" in both the romance and the action.

     A fine actor's director, Mr. Russell has neither Martin Scorsese's drive nor Mr. Bogdanovich's sensibility; he does have a manic energy and a feel for blue-collar life that has served him well in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but American Hustle is a whole other kettle of fish and one that soon suggests the director has bitten off more than he can chew. Bloated and overlong at nearly two and a half hours without any proper justification for the length, always amped up to eleven as per the director's usual but too often seeming to be running on fumes, the film is never as funny or as original as it thinks it is — though Mr. Russell does coax once again a fine series of performances, especially from Ms. Adams and Ms. Lawrence, with a standout supporting role from comedian Louis C. K. as the penny-pinching FBI supervisor who stands in Richie's way. It is an entertaining, well-made film - but, as Silver Linings Playbook before it, has been hyped beyond its own merits, and suggests a more careerist director than either that careening comedy or the tense, nervous The Fighter showed.

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman
Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriters: Eric Warren Singer, Mr. Russell
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren (colour, widescreen)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Judy Becker
Costumes: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten
Producers: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon  (Annapurna Pictures and Atlas Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 138 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, January 15th 2014

Nominated for ten 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress - Amy Adams; Best Actor - Christian Bale; Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Lawrence; Best Supporting Actor - Bradley Cooper; Best Original Screenplay; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Editing)


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