(David O. Russell, 2013)
Russell has emerged over his last few films as that rare thing; an auteur with the ability to make truly accessible popular cinema. As such, American Hustle feels ambitious, personal, (relatively) intelligent and well-crafted, while also managing to be raucously entertaining. It gives movie stars meaty roles filled with great, actorly scenes to play, and never skimps on glamour or laughs, while delivering a complex, talky story filled with (often silly and ostentatious) stylistic flourishes.
Set very self-consciously in the mid 1970s (it often feels like it was directed by the costume and production design departments, so enraptured is it with big collars, kitschy decor and huge American cars, not to mention the almost fetishistic approach Russell takes to hairstyles - two scenes here involve characters wearing curlers throughout, while the opening spends a slow minute or two studying Bale as he dons an elaborate hairpiece) it follows Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a New York businessman and con artist, and his experiences after he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They fall passionately in love, despite Irving's marriage to Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a possibly-disturbed, but sexy housewife who retains a hold over him. Sydney adopts a new identity; Lady Edith Greensley, an English aristocrat with banking connections, and her assistance trebles Irving's fraud business. This attracts the attention of frustrated FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) who catches Sydney and uses her to persuade Irving to help him mount a series of elaborate sting operations, catching corrupt officials, beginning with Jeremy Renner's New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito. As they get deeper and deeper, attracting the attention of the mob (a scary Robert DeNiro and Jack Huston) and an ambitious D.A. (Allesandro Nivola, seemingly impersonating Christopher Walken) Irving and Sydney's relationship unravels, and finally Irving must come up with a plan to get them out of trouble unharmed.
Despite the stupid Scorsese comparisons - yes, Russell has seen Goodfellas - his style is determinedly his own. Loose and freewheeling, his camera ceaselessly roams, homing in on his actors as they work themselves up in one of the constant emotional climaxes scattered throughout the narrative.
That is an issue; this film is constantly pitched near hysteria. Each scene feels like an improvisation session near its end, with characters upset or enraged or on the make. It never settles down, never takes a moment. Only Di Maso's FBI boss, played by a beautifully downbeat Louis CK, operates at a different pace. Russell's style, so hyperactive and energetic, compounds this, as does his love for caking his soundtrack in vintage tunes, most of them absolutely unrelated to the story, for all that they add to the sensual pleasure of the film in general.
Actors must love him as a director; all five principals here get big showcase scenes. Bale, Adams and Cooper get several apiece, and each thrives. Bale is building what will seem in retrospect like a stunning career, mixing massive blockbusters with more nuanced character work, and here he seamlessly goes all New York method, shrugging and chewing on his words behind his big '70s glasses. His Irving is the heart of the film, and he carries it, his pain and confusion giving the last act a sizeable emotional sting. Adams - in what feels like a rare part where we get to see how beautiful she is - is equally great, never forgetting to show us how vulnerable Sydney remains even as she plays her part in the big con. And Russell knows just how to use Cooper. So handsome and virile, his star persona is always a little smug and conceited, and Russell identifies just how unsympathetic that can be, making Richie consciously the star of the movie playing in his head while he transforms himself into the villain of the one we're watching.
Through all this Russell uses lots of slow-motion, a free-floating voiceover which flicks between characters, and Linus Sandgren's photography ensures the whole thing is nicely textured and often stunning.
Overall, its a fascinating film; messy, riveting and annoying in equal measure. Its director, though, is now a major figure. Which partly explains just why his work is now so reviled in some quarters.