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Film Review: American Hustle

American Hustle (2013; Directed by David O. Russell)

David O. Russell’s breezily fictionalized spin on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s opens (after a droll disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened”) with a scene of its protagonist con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meticulously arranging his elaborate combover in a luxury hotel suite mirror. Russell’s camera lingers on the detail of Bale’s exertions on his coiffure as the actor subtly revels in the flourishes of Rosenfeld’s preparations. His care and attention to detail in presenting a false follicular front to the world have little to do with male vanity, however. They are about perfecting the correct appearance to achieve the desired effect, and the desired effect is always for his mark to believe in him not because he wants them to, but because they want to.

This is the essence of the con man’s hustle, expressed as clearly and as resonantly as it perhaps ever has been onscreen in American Hustle. But Russell, a famously exacting filmmaker whose films always feel looser and more casually-constructed than they really are, is not content to simply doodle entertainingly on the level of the confidence caper potboiler, a slick Ocean’s Eleven transposed to the plush glare of the ’70s. American Hustle is Russell’s Goodfellas, stylistically and thematically. And it suggests a close kinship between its double-crossing, role-playing scammers and the vaunted American Dream in much the same way that Goodfellas melded the brash alterity of Mob life with American middle-class aspiration. The con is not a bug in America’s construction, it’s a feature.

Russell and co-scripter Eric Warren Singer change the names and many of the personas of the Abscam principals, and spice up the scenario with criss-crossing liaisons and shifting loyalties, but the broad strokes are similar. Rosenfeld is the owner of a New York-area dry-cleaning chain, the son of a glazier, and a seasoned scam artist who dabbles in fake-loan schemes and forged art dealing. His partner and paramour, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), impersonates a British aristocrat and weaves her particular seduction of victims with his own. Although they have a productive shadow-business and a passionate love life, Rosenfeld also has a family on Long Island to go back to: his mercurial, disastrous wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and son Danny (Danny and Sonny Corbo), towards whom he is a devoted father.

Rosenfeld’s split allegiances become further bifurcated when he and Sydney are busted in their loan scam by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and he presses them into an ever-broadening sting operation aimed at the dedicated but corrupt mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, sporting a spectacular coif). Polito is employing his tentacular influence in New Jersey politics to raise funds to rebuild the legalized gambling business of Atlantic City, a venture now legendary for its embezzlement, corrupt application of public funds, and Mafia involvement in skimming construction costs and casino profits. DiMaso, steamrolling over the reasonable Midwestern caution of his embattled superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis CK), looks to snag Polito for taking bribes from an invented Middle Eastern sheikh (impersonated by a Mexican-American agent played by the indispensible Michael Peña, in what now plays like an inadvertent shot at Donald Trump’s nativist anti-immigration fulminations). He wants the cooperation and expertise of the entrapped Rosenfeld and Sydney in pulling off this sting, and needs it more and more as the web of corruption in the Atlantic City deal catches U.S. congressmen, a Senator, and a menacing Mob enforcer-turned-captain (Robert DeNiro).

I must admit to my shame that I’ve missed out on Russell’s later-period transformation from the brazen iconoclast of Three Kings to the super-skilled director of sprawling, audience-friendly awards-bait genre prestige pictures like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. His cast for Hustle draws liberally from his recent efforts. Bale achieves the opposite physical transformation from his Oscar-nominated role in The Fighter, where he was gaunt and hollow-cheeked in contrast to Rosenfeld’s pot-belly; the sultry, unwaveringly sharp Adams was also in that film. Cooper, whose overgrown-bro-trending career was put on a more respectable path by Silver Linings Playbook, ricochets from overconfidence to self-doubt, from aggression to desperation, from triumph to deflation. Lawrence, Russell’s megawatt muse since Silver Linings Playbook, is great as usual, saddled though she is with the stock hysterical wife role (Lorraine Bracco left so little of such a role for anyone after Goodfellas) and is only sometimes given free reign to subvert it, as when she celebrates a vengeful attempt to break Rosenfeld’s cover with her putative Mafia boyfriend (Jack Huston) via a pugnacious singalong to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” while cleaning the house.

Technically, American Hustle is superbly crafted, flashily and subtly in equal measure. Even in what many directors would stage as static dialogue scenes, Russell moves his camera with even-handed drama, pushes in and pulls away for precisely calculated effect that feels spontaneous and effortless. When DiMaso and Sydney (the former is deeply attracted to the latter, who purports to be honeytrapping the federali but might have more feelings than she lets on) go out dancing, Russell revels in the sexiness of a Manhattan club night, all UV floods and chopped-up strobe lights.

All the fine performances and technical acumen would be wasted, however, if American Hustle‘s themes did not land so firmly on an uncomfortable and infrequently-acknowledged truth about the pursuit of wealth and happiness in America: the ends are forever justifying the means, and driving those means past the threshold of legality and morality (which are not always the same thing). In a year in which a shamelessly transparent con man stands a disturbingly good chance of becoming President of the United States, Russell’s film from a few years ago shows how the nigh-unchecked processes of American capitalism turn everyone – striving con artists, ambitious cops, politicians, mobsters, even unstable housewives – into scammers.

“Let’s be real,” says DiMaso to Sydney at several points, ironically unaware that she is not only pretending to love him but faking an entire identity and maybe conning him on deeper levels as well. DiMaso cannot play as fast and loose with reality as Sydney and Rosenfeld can, despite all of his swagger and attitude, and this problem makes him a juicy mark. The problem with America, in the 1970s as now, is the slippery nature of the “real” in the face of constant personal reinvention and relentless sales pitch bombardment of daily life. Donald Trump is not a good businessman, strong leader, brilliant thinker, or even a particularly functional human being, but he plays those roles on TV with enough blustering conviction to persuade a significant minority of American voters that he might be. American Hustle‘s characters are putting up similar false fronts for similar selfish gain; for them as for Trump, the idea of reality, the concept of truth, is just another facet of the long con they are running on the world. Early in their tense partnership, Rosenfeld and DiMaso stand in front of a Rembrandt portrait in an art museum and Rosenfeld tells DiMaso that the painting is a skilled fake that no one has recognized. But what does that matter? What is the palpable difference between the real and the fake if it is too difficult to distinguish one from the other to be worth the dubious effort, and, furthermore, if the effort of making and observing that distinction offers no tangible reward? America itself is a hustle, indeed chronically rewards the hustle, and David O. Russell’s resonant caper epic understands and demonstrates this with enjoyable and skilled bravado.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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