On 1st January, our writer thinks he saw the best film of 2014 in the ‘messy’ American Hustle.
You’d do well to have a better time at the cinema this year. 12 Years A Slave will have more poignancy and The Wolf of Wall Street will garner more acclaim, but it’s American Hustle, in all its dazzling glory, that will leave you the most entertained, that will have you dancing out of the cinema to any one of the great songs used so brilliantly in its soundtrack – from Bowie to ELO by way of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, American Hustle has it all. Director David O. Russell is a master of mixing zany, anarchic comedy with serious, chaotic character study, and here is his best example of it yet; a madcap picture that grabs you by the balls and makes you laugh whilst doing so.
If cinema’s true purpose is to entertain, then American Hustle may be its zenith. You have, in a film that isn’t perfect, a perfect film
If cinema’s true purpose is to entertain, then American Hustle may well be its zenith. There’s seriousness here too, though, and the film has a lot more heart and pathos than critics have been suggesting. Add to that the richest bench of acting talent in recent history and period detail that drips off the screen like honey, and you have, in a film that isn’t perfect, a perfect film. Not perfect in the way a Taxi Driver or a Chinatown is perfect, but perfect in the way that it appeases every aspect of the cinemagoer’s needs, perfect in the way it acknowledges its imperfections and carries on anyway, sticking its middle finger up to film history as it steals some of its trademarks.
This style of film-making has lead certain critics to accuse American Hustle of being a “mess” – that lazy word used to describe any film that isn’t made in the classical sense. This is a theory that needs debunking, however, because, despite the fact that American Hustle probably is a bit of a mess, it’s a glorious one, one we should be glad we’re involved in as we watch, and revel in, its perceived messiness. In a film about con artists, it’s Russell who pulls the biggest con: making the audience care for characters we shouldn’t in a film that shouldn’t work but does. He is a truly unique filmmaker, and, ironically so given the comparisons, has delivered a film better than any Martin Scorsese picture of the last decade.
American Hustle definitely and unashamedly wears its influences on its sleeve, but, in a film about con artists, it’s fitting that it has a few tricks of its own up there as well. Consider three separate scenes and then consider the fact that they happen in the same film: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) twirling and dancing with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to Piero Piccioni’s La Chatte á la Satie; Rosalyn Rosenfeld blowing up a microwave; Victor Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro) striking a deal with Irving, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and a fake Arab sheikh that concerns casinos, corrupt political figures and undercover FBI agents.
These three scenes, respectively, could have come from a romantic epic, a 30s screwball comedy, and a 90s gangster picture. That they all happen in American Hustle is testament to the film’s ambition, testament to Russell’s vision of a film that isn’t so much concerned with plot, but rather the characters in it, and how they act and react to whatever movie situation he decides to throw them in. The director himself is quoted as saying he doesn’t care about plot, only character.
American Hustle isn’t concerned with plot, but its characters, and how they react to whatever movie situation Russell throws them in
As has been stated in every review of American Hustle, the performances, to a man (or woman) are great. Bale shows he can perform implosion just as well as explosion, Adams turns in the female performance of the year and Jennifer Lawrence steals most of the scenes she is in. It’s Bradley Cooper that really excels here, though, if not for the funniest attempt to bed a woman on screen in recent memory, then for his nightclub entrance — silk scarf and all — with his chest out, hair permed, ready to dance up a fucking storm to Donna Summers’s I Feel Love. A nod too, to comic genius Louis C.K, who, in a small but vital role, proves he can cut it on the big screen as well as he does on the little one.
Rarely is cinema this damn fun whilst also being art and, if anyone indeed doubts that American Hustle is art, they need only look at David O. Russell’s framing, lingering, almost never-ending shot of Adams’s face as she realises that she’s falling in love with Irving as Duke Ellington’s Jeep’s Blues, that most iconic of jazz tunes, plays in the background. And so it is, then, that on the first day of this calendar year, I think I saw the best film of it. If that seems presumptuous, then good, because if David O. Russell and American Hustle have taught me anything, then it’s to not give a fuck what anybody thinks; it’s to just go with it, and have a ball along the way.
All images: Entertainment Film Distributors