Movie reviews

American Hustle ****

Movie reviews

Con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) get stung by FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper) in American Hustle (15A), but the hustle, as far as Richie is concerned, is only getting started. Richie has plans to take down corrupt politicians and Mafia bosses, and particularly Mayor Politio (Jeremy Renner), and believes Irving and Sydney are the couple who can teach the FBI a thing or two about how to run a con. But Richie hasn’t factored in Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman who is a law unto herself. Directed by David O Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), American Hustle is something of a throwback to classic gangster/mafia flicks such as Casino and Goodfellas. Set in the late 1970s, it’s a sprawling epic of scams, cons, and triple- and quadruple-crosses. Performances are strong across the board, with all the main players brilliantly buying into Russell’s comedy of the grotesque — the movie opens, for example, with Irving painstakingly putting his combover-wig combination in place before he attempts his latest con. The downside is that the comedy often deliberately undercuts the drama at crucial moments. It renders the story a little self-conscious and too knowingly referential of the genre, and denies it the mythic quality of its predecessors. Nevertheless, American Hustle is a hugely entertaining romp with some fantastically hilarious performances (watch out for Lawrence and Bale when the Oscar nominations come around) that never seems to flag despite its two-and-a-half hour running time.

Idris Elba stars as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (12A), a timely biopic adapted from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and directed by Justin Chadwick. Full of deft touches — Rolihlahla, Mandela’s middle name given to him by his father, means ‘trouble-maker’ in Xhosa — the film’s early section sets up Mandela as a successful black lawyer who is angered by the repressive white regime that rules South Africa, but who is largely resigned to suffering under racist discrimination. Politicised by the murder of a friend in police custody, Mandela and his comrades in the African National Congress embark on a campaign for freedom and justice for all. The broad strokes of Mandela’s life will be familiar to even the most casual observers of world affairs, but even so, Justin Chadwick, Idris Elba, and Naomie Harris (playing Winnie Madikizela) have crafted an absorbing tale of struggle against overwhelming odds. Elba is superb in the lead role, perfectly pitched as a young, feckless, and womanising Mandela, but more than capable of handling the transition to firebrand freedom-fighter and thence to his role as elder statesman and the voice and face of a new South Africa. As a biopic, it’s by no means a hagiography: Mandela emerges as a flawed man, particularly in his earlier years, and neither do the filmmakers gloss over the personal and political conflict with Winnie — who also suffered harsh treatment at the hands of the authorities — that emerges as the ANC threatens to splinter into factions. It’s a complex, moving, and inspiring story given an added dimension by the death of Mandela late last year, and a fitting tribute to one of the world’s great heroes of the 20th century.

In Last Vegas (12A), four childhood buddies — played by Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Kevin Kline — reunite for the first time in years for Douglas’s bachelor party. The venue, as you may have guessed, is Sin City, but simmering tensions between De Niro and Douglas threaten to derail the merrymaking before it begins. Undeterred, the quartet talk trash to cheeky young bucks (Entourage’s Jerry Ferrera) at the card table, ogle busty women in bikinis at the pool, complain about the loud music in a nightclub, and vie for the attention of Mary Steenburgen’s lounge singer. As expected, the banter centres on their old age but the gags are as tired, safe, and predictable as De Niro, for example, pretending he’s a Mafia guy. The director, Jon Turteltaub, obviously hopes that the novelty factor in having four heavyweight actors onscreen together will be enough to push the movie through its ropier moments, but in fact their reputations only serve to highlight Last Vegas’s shortcomings.

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