David O. Russell directs movies like he’s just snorted a big line of cocaine and been told the camera is a Grand Theft Auto controller – the actors in his scenes spend most of their time trying not to get run over. Intensity. That’s what Russell has in spades, and it’s again on show in his latest attempt at Oscar success, American Hustle, a sort-of-true but probably not film about conmen being puppeted by the FBI to entrap crooked politicians in the aftermath of Watergate.
The skinny is this: Christian Bale and Amy Adams are the hustlers, Bale promising huge returns on small-time loans and Adams affecting a British accent purporting to have London connections. Bale has a wife’n’all, Jennifer Lawrence, who’s pretty emotionally unstable and manipulative, but also super hot. Eventually Bale & Adams get caught by young upstart FBI agent Bradley Cooper who then uses them to do his bidding – to nail New Jersey politician Jeremy Renner for corruption, as much to big up his own career as for any other reason.
Honestly, the movie takes a while to get going. There’s a lot of dialogue-heavy, voiceover-led exposition in the opening half hour or so which you really want to take a cleaver to. The opening scene is wonderful – a fat, odd looking Christian Bale meticulously shaping his combover – but it takes a while to get to the meat of the story. When it does however, the film kicks into gear.
This is what I mean about intensity. Russell’s camera hardly ever stops moving, and on the rare occasions it is stationary, his characters are not. Shots will track quickly in on faces, swoop around rooms and bodies, focus in on little details before pulling away almost immediately – the movement is always smooth, never shaky. This is Indie sensibility with a Hollywood budget, and it taps into the themes at the heart of the film perfectly – deceit, trickery, sleight of hand. Russell is a magician, and his greatest trick? Managing to not let slip that Robert De Niro is in this film, and he steals it with one scene.
Because despite Bale, Cooper and Renner adorning the posters, Adams and Lawrence betwixt and between, De Niro rocks up for one scene, about two-thirds through, and reminds you that he’s Robert De Niro – out of bloody Raging Bull and that. You forget that when you watch Last Vegas. Somehow David O. Russell has managed to rekindle the De Niro that soared under Scorsese. He steals this movie. He steals it with a look. It’s mesmerising.
That’s to take nothing away from the other performances, which are all extremely strong. Bradley Cooper is almost the director incarnate, flinging himself around scenes and firing off dialogue like a machine gun. Amy Adams is brilliant, totally brilliant, as is Lawrence – two of the finest actresses working today, and brilliant characters too, totally messed up but fleshed out, fully formed and brilliantly inviting. Bale’s takes time to get used to, but he’s given licence to showcase comic timing in his role rarely seen before, and he nails it. Renner is quieter, but totally believable and solid as the good guy politician caught up in an ugly web.
In comparison to Russell’s other work, American Hustle perhaps isn’t as immediately arresting as Silver Linings Playbook, or even Spanking The Monkey. However, it’s different, it’s ambitious, it’s bigger and it cements the director as one of the most exciting in film today.