The film starts with someone’s hair, so very carefully styled yet built on delicate foundations. A metaphor perhaps for a character that is balanced if all is where it should be, not so much if something falls out of place.
Irving Rosenfled (Christian Bale) is a small time conman in 1978, when he meets Sydney Prosse (Amy Adams), with her cut glass English accent and “high society” connections, he instinctively knows they can be of use to each other.
Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who represents everything Sydney is not. Rosalyn is not the sharpest knife in the drawer but has a habit of stumbling on philosophical nuggets purely by chance. The couple have a young adopted child that binds Irving to the massively dysfunctional family, whilst indulging his obvious attraction to Sydney without too much pause for guilt.
The pair commence a lucrative scam whereby they promise loans using Sydney’s connections on receipt of a fee, the loans are not real but the fee certainly is and remains in their pocket.
All is good, despite the mixed up relationship situation, until the pair sting the wrong guy. Enter FBI low level agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who uses the leverage he now possesses to trawl for a bigger fish, a much larger and more dangerous catch.
Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is the basically good New Jersey mayor who falls within the web spun rather naively by DiMarco. This is a time when bribes, favours and the like was the way of doing things. To get the wheels of development turning, a little “grease” is often required. Carmine knows this and works the system not so much for his own advantage but for the community as a whole. As the web expands and catches bigger and well connected targets, the scams involving a “sheik” start to snowball dangerously out of control.
Jennifer Lawrence yet again proves her ability to play characters that confound audience expectations. Shining particularly brightly when miming “Live and Let Die” whilst cleaning the house in her yellow kitchen gloves. Bale is almost unrecognisable in both physical appearance and behaviour, his billionaire superhero left determinedly in the bat cave. Bradley Cooper adds another solid turn to his growing resume, at turns all knowing and others naive, as he continues to wade ever deeper into a whirlpool he cannot possibly control.
Adams is solid, both smart, tough and vulnerable and initially accepting her role in this Shakespearean tragedy, before taking action to get what she wants. Renner as Carmine is especially good as the one decent man in the piece, albeit the one person unknowingly taking the biggest risk. The film builds to a crescendo where you really cannot fathom how the story will be tied into anything resembling a conclusion.
The fact that there is some satisfaction when the lights go up, is a testament to the writing, an ending that could so easily have gone another way, if the usual movie screenplay writers had their way.
A good film, although difficult to categorise, a comedy, a character study or a tragedy is difficult to say, between these three stools the films falls, not always completely successfully.
Certainly director David O. Russell does not make it easy for the audience, some of who may get frustrated at attempting to decide what exactly they are watching.