Enterprising, eccentric director David O. Russell has put out noted flops (I Heart Huckabees) as well as some terrific work (particularly Three Kings) in his almost 30-year career. His last movie, Silver Linings Playbook, about two depressives falling wildly in love, was one of those miraculous (and globally prized) stories that repeatedly transcends its very obvious plot pay-offs and simply works. The anticipated American Hustle, following con-artists forced to assist the FBI, has tremendous fizz (the disco-era fashions take centre stage) but is too vaudeville and tends to meander ruinously about.
Its stars, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence, are all game and convincingly blue-collar New Jersey and many of the plot set-ups get plenty of laughs, but the movie feels like a series of contrivances. There’s none of the truly maniac radiance of Silver Linings. In the end, American Hustle is not really about anything more than having a hilarious time in a gut-busting ensemble, and no matter how much we love movies about conmen (The Thomas Crown Affair, Ocean’s 11, The Sting) you never get that sense, as you should in a good example of the genre, of plans thrillingly coming together, or that subtle whisper suggesting that the greatest staged con in history, and one we have all bought into heart and soul, is the movies themselves.
The standout performance, as ever, is Lawrence, playing a sexy, lunatic young wife. This kid is the most natural actress working today. Very girlish and very un-Hollywood, she is irresistible and fun with an unbelievable star quality, like Carole Lombard. At 23, she is still completely fresh and so unconstructed, you wonder how her career will develop. There are certain actresses who turn up and you immediately anticipate a great reign – take Julia Roberts. Twenty-three when she made Pretty Woman, she was perfection, with an exaggerated face for extreme comedy; but none of it felt particularly natural as such – not in itself remotely a pre-requisite for screen perfection: Garbo wasn’t exactly natural. Those sorts of actress just seem to have more of a kind of artful longevity written all over them and their careers. Lawrence feels far more shoot-from-the hip innocent and her quality is very youth-dependent.