A prefacing title card that reads “Some of this actually happened” sets the flippant tone for American Hustle, writer-director David O. Russell’s (Silver Linings Playbook) bawdy fictionalisation of the 1978 Abscam sting operation, in which the FBI teamed up with con artists to bring down corrupt politicians.

The film then opens with leading con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) – gut exposed, and all but superimposed arrows pointing at evidence of another of Bale’s stunt-like onscreen physical transformations – meticulously applying a combover to his balding head, in a scene that belabours the film’s soon-to-be-exhausted idea that this is a world, and a film, about keeping up appearances above all else.

Less calculated a thematic metaphor is Russell’s shameless aping of Goodfellas, especially in the opening scenes, which include an ‘ever since I was a kid…’ flashback, followed by the blossoming affair between Rosenfeld and fellow grifter Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), related in duelling voiceovers a la Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco’s in Scorsese’s film (Jennifer Lawrence, playing Rosenfeld’s loose-cannon wife Rosalyn, also recalls Sharon Stone in Scorsese’s Casino). Bale, hamming it up in a blatant De Niro impersonation, at one point guides FBI agent and sting operation cohort Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) through an art gallery, pointing out a forged Rembrandt, before posing a question that extends beyond the film’s narrative. “People believe what they want to believe, because the guy who made this was so good, that it’s real to everybody. Now who’s the master? The painter or the forger?”

American Hustle is preoccupied with alluring surfaces and showmanship, and momentary diversion, immersing you not in the ’70s but rather ‘The ’70s’, with on-the-nose period-specific music cues, hairstyles, wardrobing et al, creating a thick nostalgic fog. It’s an exercise that’s largely self-reflexive, but no less exasperating for being in on the joke. Most detrimentally, the pervasively smarmy tone precludes any emotional investment or resonance regarding its numerous reveals and reversals, with Bale’s fraught friendship with his target, New Jersey major Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) being particularly told-but-not-shown.

Still, the humour mostly lands (Louis C.K. FTW), and the performances from the ensemble cast – captured with a prowling, ADD steadicam that generates suspense based on whether it’ll knock someone out at any moment – are boisterously entertaining, though only Adams brings a semblance of depth to her role. It’s finally less a magnificent fraud than an elaborate combover.

2.5/5 stars


American Hustle is in cinemas now.

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