American Hustle is built as the 2013 revival of classic Scorsese gangster pictures like Goodfellas and Casino, but without the gangsters. It has the plot twists, the plethora of pop tunes, the conniving characters, the backstabbings, the high life, the low life, the disgruntled females merciless attached to crooked husbands, the stranded children, and so on. But it's new. Fresh out of the oven. Baked with wonderful performances and tight scriptwriting. And it has characters who inhabit the story and make it their own.
The movie begins in medias res, with two con men -- and one con lady -- attempting to buy out a Jersey mayor. There's a lovely opening shot of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, almost unrecognisable) carefully and painstakingly combing over his thinning strands of hair. This scene reminded me very much of the opening of Richard Linklater's Bernie, where a plump but serene mortician played by Jack Black joyfully lectures a scarce hall of students on the process of embalming. It's a slow scene, maybe too slow to open up a movie, but we are never bored, because we are given insight to a skill that we've never seen before, or don't know much about. It's the same with this scene. I've never seen anyone cover up bald. It's always bald being uncovered; wigs and toupees accidentally being ripped off, or blown away by strong winds. The scene also informs us that Irving is a certain kind of character.
After jumping to a series of flashbacks, in which the history between Irving and his long-time girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams, almost unrecognisable without her makeup) is revealed to have blossomed over a shared love of Duke Ellington, the plot begins proper. Irving and Sydney -- now posing as a wealthy British banker named Edith -- have been arrested by Richie (Bradley Cooper, fully recognisable despite his hairdo), an ambitious FBI agent who thinks he has the wit and skill to take down corrupt congressmen and casino gangsters with flimsy, ill-conceived plans. He ropes Irving and Sydney into his little schemes, and soon has them taking on an entire network of illegal tradesmen.
Caught in the middle are two people: Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Carmine is the mayor whom the trio wanted to con at the start of the movie. He becomes integral to the plot when Irving develops a friendship with him. Do I tell him that I've been conning him all along, and that my innocent little scheme might get him arrested in front of his wife and six children? Or do I stay quiet, maintain the friendship, and face my conscience alone? What he does, I will not say.
Rosalyn is an interesting character. Yes, she skirts dangerously close to the Sharon Stones and Lorraine Braccos of the old Scorsese pictures, but Jennifer Lawrence is able to lift her away from them by being more grounded. Stone always seemed to operate on her own terms in Casino. She was a third wheel, functioning outside of the overall story. Here, Rosalyn is fully aware of the situation at hand. She's right smack in the middle of the story. She doesn't love Irving. Irving doesn't love her. But they both love their son, and Rosalyn doesn't want a divorce tarnishing her solid family marital integrity. But she knows that the love festering in the household is only producing toxic fumes. Where her character goes is a place best kept hidden.
And then there's a mix of other secondary characters, including perhaps the best cameo I've seen (not because of the cameo itself, but because of the meaning of the cameo). All of them dip in and out of this intelligent story with impact. Why, even Richie's boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), is a lovely guy. He provides much of the movie's humour, and there is much of it. Director David O. Russell has said that his goal with American Hustle was to focus on the characters instead of the plot. Indeed, what a good decision. It's a rare moment when not a single character seems out of place. They complement each other, whether they're kissing, punching, clawing, or scratching. And they share so much chemistry that you could select any two of them at random, chuck them into an empty room, and watch them chatter till their throats went dry.
I attended a screening of this movie in Mandurah, which is a lovely place. The cinema had maybe nine other patrons (weird, considering it was opening day). I'd been to Mandurah a few times before, and I watched The Counselor there. That was a poor movie, but the screening was smooth, which is more than I can say for the screening of this film. With about 15 minutes to go, the video jammed and stuttered slowly to a halt. It's the first time I've seen digital video jam. And it couldn't have happened at a worse time. The projectionist eventually rectified the problem, but I had already been sucked out of the moment. That's a pity, because American Hustle was shaping up to be one of the best movies of the year. You know what? Screw it. It still is.