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28 December 2013

That '70s Showdown

I hadn't heard much about David O. Russell's new '70s caper American Hustle until a few weeks ago and now suddenly it's everywhere. Except that it isn't quite everywhere in the UK yet — it's only showing at the Vue in Leicester Square until its full release on New Year's Day. In a last-minute attempt to boost my somewhat poor cinema attendance this year, I braved the wilds of the West End and even forked out £14.50 for my ticket. As you can expect, my expectations were high, and luckily, I enjoyed American Hustle a great deal.

The film is based on a fictionalised version of the FBI's ABSCAM operation, an effort to crack down on US political corruption in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Some of these things actually happened," the title card reads. Tee hee. As the film opens, our two anti-heroes — small-time conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and enthusiastic, if unorthodox, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) — are trying to bring down a popular New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and an assortment of corrupt (or at least corruptible) Members of Congress.

The operation is the result of a deal forged after Richie catches Irving and his business partner Sydney (Amy Adams) in the act of fraud. If Irv and Sydney — usually known by the name of her fraudulent British alter ego, Lady Edith Greensly — can help Richie bring down some big fish, the pair can avoid jail time. Irving soon homes in on Carmine as a potential target and he, Sydney and Richie cook up a wacky sting operation, involving a fake sheikh and a kickstart to the regeneration of the Jersey shoreline, which will bring in plenty of new jobs for locals, as well as a healthy dollop of skimming and other corruption. Richie soon realises he can't succeed without Irving's advice. "That's the art," Irv says. "Becoming someone that people can pin their hopes and dreams on."

To complicate matters further, Sydney seems to be into Richie, when she is also Irving's lover. Meanwhile, Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a trashy, sunbed-obsessed real housewife of Jersey Shore. Confused? Well, it is the '70s. Irv wants to leave Rosalyn but she threatens to report all of his dubious businesses to the authorities if he tries to divorce her, and she also uses her young son, whom Irv has adopted, as leverage.

And it's all a jolly entertaining caper. Although it has been billed as a drama comedy, I wouldn't say it's especially laugh-out-loud funny, but there are some great lines, such as when Irv describes Rosalyn as, "The Picasso of passive-aggressive karate," and of course there are plenty of tee hees when Carmine gives Irv a microwave, or a "science oven." Oh, and the scene where Richie and Sydney are talking on the phone, each wearing their own set of curlers. How '70s.

It's the performances that hold the film together, though, and as ever with David O. Russell, his old favourites are all reunited here. Bale, drawing on his role in The Fighter, perhaps, is excellent and almost unrecognisable as the overweight but confident Irv, whose elaborate combover takes ages to assemble each morning. Adams surely deserves an Oscar for best-supported actress given her character's penchant for v-neck dresses whose necklines dip down to her stomach. Until her character gets a perm, she also wins the award for best hair, although there isn't much competition. Lawrence's character doesn't appear much in the first half but comes into her own in the final act, effing and blinding and generally being the polar opposite of Katniss Everdean. Cooper was fine too, although didn't stand out as much as the other leads. American Hustle also has an impressive supporting cast, including Louis C.K. as Richie's long-suffering boss and an uncredited cameo by Robert De Niro as a Mafia boss.

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