‘I’ ON CULTURE
American Hustle is a movie, a very good one, which defies description. It is a rich, textured, fictional take on the Abscam hustle that the FBI ran on a group of politicians back in the 1970s. Totally fictional, the characters are all so rich in detail that they really come alive. Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) is a master at creating offbeat, fascinating characters and then letting them interact. Each character is three-dimensional, and each is hustling almost everyone else in the film. It is a drama, but one with a litany of very funny moments.
Hustler and con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) runs a few dry cleaning stores, sells forged art and looks for ways to make money everywhere. He meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the two fall in love as she re-creates herself into the role of a member of the British gentry. Their scams get more high-end, the only wrinkle being Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a self-centered, stay-at-home mom whose son Irving has adopted and adores.
Then Sydney is arrested by overly energetic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) for their scams, and Irving is told that the only way to win back his freedom is to work with the agency to take down a group of politicians. The key politician and target is the family-man mayor of Camden, N.J., Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Richie messes up initial meetings, and Irving steps in to rescue the mission, essentially taking over. Things get more complicated as Sydney begins to romance Richie as a tactical ploy and Irving starts to actually like Carmine. Suddenly, the Mafia is involved (a great cameo by Robert DeNiro), and then Rosalyn really lets loose.
What really sets this film apart is the superb acting. Bale has brilliantly moved from Batman to fat man. At the start we see him working on one of the world’s most elaborate comb-overs as his belly hangs out over his belt. He has few good points. He hurts people; he cheats on his wife. But we see him change during the film as he learns a new way to survive and begins to actually get a moral compass, even if it is weak. Adams is wonderful as Sydney. Another survivor, she begins to understand how her victims felt as she is blatantly manipulated by Richie. Cooper is essentially the villain of the piece, abusing everyone in his quest for glory. He is wild; there are hints of cocaine use. He is both powerful and clueless; only victories keep him from being disciplined. Louis C.K. is amusing as his overburdened boss.
But it is Lawrence who steals the film every time she appears. She is like a mini-tornado, ignoring Irving’s agenda to focus on her own wants. She has a scene with a microwave, new back in the ’70s, that despite being predictable is a hoot. And when she winds up in the middle of the whole scam, she manages to scatter all the pieces in new ways. I was left wondering if her character was as dumb as she appeared or if she was hiding something as a way of ensuring her survival. She has already been nominated twice for Academy Awards, winning once, and she will almost certainly be nominated again.
The picture’s real message, bannered in its title, is that everyone is a hustler. Each of the characters has an agenda and never hesitates to use any of the others to move his or her own agenda forward. Ironically, the mayor is probably the nicest, most honest of the characters. He really seems to believe in the major project the scam is created to help, the rebuilding of Atlantic City. As a result, he is the biggest target. The FBI is the villain, at least Richie is. And his real boss, a federal prosecutor, is ready to go a long way in order to ensure that many major figures go down. It is, of course, a major reversal of roles from typical gangster movies, and it works, perhaps because many are no longer certain that the increasing amount of government power over us is always beneficial.
This is one of the best movies of the year. There are no special effects (except, perhaps, for Bale’s hair), just fascinating characters, really good dialogue and great acting. Go see it.