by Thom Yee
If there’s one part of my life that I’m actually happy about, it would have to be that I was never alive during any part of the seventies. Plaid pants, shag carpets, quadrophonic sound, the empty leftovers of a previous decade that actually meant something, a meaningless, empty presidency after five straight years of Nixon-ian paranoia. Looking back, it’s all a sensory overload in the worst kind of way: the colours, the textures… the way things look like they must have smelled like… I’m glad I missed all that. To be fair, I am kind of a fan of the Farrah Fawcett haircut (which looks like it must have taken forever to do), I do wear sideburns (but that’s mostly because of the inherent absurdity of Asian male facial hair), and I still think bell bottoms look awesome on a certain type of girl (though that type of girl tends to look awesome in almost anything).
And all of these are really broad generalizations.
There’s a feeling I got as I watched American Hustle that everyone of these characters were ready to bust out of their circumstances. That is, of course, part of the basic premise of the overall film (and screenwriting in general), but even though all of the characters had a need that had yet to be fulfilled, I think that their needs were at least partially defined by living in a decade that really needed to move on and give way to the future.
The elephant in the room (if there is such a thing [or any room at all]) is that I named American Hustle the best movie of the year in my Year-End Review. And I’m not really sure why. It just felt right at the time.
I’ve seen three David O. Russell movies so far — Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook, and the subject of this review — and every one of them sort of begs to be nominated for at least a few awards. The subject matter is always provocative, deeply rooted in the humanity that we’re surrounded by, the stars are as big as they come, and there’s just a level of accomplishment about them that screams “Give me an award!” To me, that would generally be the biggest reason to avoid his movies, like I did The Artist and The Help two years ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Lincoln last year, and like I have Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska this year. Movies whose acclaim far outstrip my desire to actually see them. To the average moviegoer, American Hustle won’t necessarily stand out from that crowd, but it should, because it’s built on much more than just Oscar bait.
We begin our movie with Christian Bale’s Irv engaged in his elaborate morning routine. He dresses himself, looks himself in the mirror like any of us do to be sure, but it’s his comb over that steals the scene as we watch him put it together with glue and hairpieces and hopes and dreams. Irv grew up determined to never be anyone’s victim the way his father was. He became a con artist to survive. Whether or not Irv’s hair says anything about him is irrelevant as it, more importantly, symbolizes the whole movie, the scams and hustles, as we hear different characters at different times reciting to each other and themselves the rules of their games. “People believe what they want to believe.” “Treat people the way they want to be treated.” “Always take a favor over money.”
Ostensibly based on a true story (and who doesn’t relish the opportunity to begin a sentence with the word ‘ostensibly’?), American Hustle tells the story of Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, a.k.a. Lady Edith Greensly (Amy Adams), lovers and con-artists-in-arms who are forced to show Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) the ropes of their art, line up four arrests, and help him make his career with the FBI or else Irv and Sydney are going to jail. Simple enough, except it gets so, so much more complicated after that. Richie hatches a scheme to catch Carmine Polito, Mayor of New Jersey, in the backdoor dealings he’s engaged in in his attempts to revitalize Atlantic City through gambling. Richie plans to use an associate of Irv’s, pretending to be an Arab Sheikh and potential investor, to attract Polito. As the game gets bigger and bigger, engulfing U.S. Senators and Mafia overlords, Irv and Sydney realize they’re going to have to pull of the biggest scam of their careers if they’re going to survive. Also, Irv is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who proceeds to fuck everything up in a very Jennifer-Lawrence-esque way.
That wasn’t necessarily the cleanest way to introduce Jennifer Lawrence’s character, but I wanted to end the last paragraph on Jennifer Lawrence. I love Jennifer Lawrence. Everybody loves Jennifer Lawrence. She’s obviously talented, and incredibly honest in a way that can get her into trouble just as well as make people fall in love with her. She can headline and star in major franchises just as well as she can mesh with ensemble casts. I mean, just take a look at this:
That’s a really weird and absurd scene, one that almost feels like it was included only once the producers were sure they’d secured Lawrence to play the part. She’s got an obvious magnetism that goes far beyond her extraordinary good looks, a born movie star, and she brings all of that to her part as Rosalyn, a character who could easily have melted into the background in the hands of a lesser actress. And yet she doesn’t steal the show because she knows she’s not the star. Just amazing, and that’s all coming from a guy who doesn’t really consciously think about those things. At the same time, if we’re being honest with ourselves and not just seeing what we want to see, most of us would have to admit that if she were much less attractive… she’d come off as pretty annoying.
As for the rest of the cast, though the film boasts an all-star cast of accomplished and eminently talented actors, American Hustle is truly an ensemble piece, and it seems only right that the film boasts Academy Award nominations for every acting role, from leading ot supporting. Christian Bale, as always, is utterly absorbing in a role that’s diametrically opposed to characters like Patrick Bateman or John Connor or Batman. Amy Adams is incredibly measured and controlled in every aspect of her multiple characters, and, almost impossibly, just as attractive as Jennifer Lawrence (not that that last bit is a fair or necessary element of her being nominated). Bradley Cooper goes from ambitious, hopeful FBI Agent to power mad psychotic several times throughout the film, and you can see in his face that the character he becomes in the end (and defeat) is so completely different than who he started as. Finally, Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Polito is convincing as a political figure who really does just want the best for his constituents, and he brings surprising depth to his relationship with Irv. All of this is ignoring the strength of the various smaller roles, including Robert De Niro as Mafioso Victor Tellegio and Jack Huston as mobster Pete Musane. Louis C.K. in particular brings humor to his role as Richie’s boss, giving line readings and a screen presence so different from the rest of the cast that you always want to laugh at him even though he never says anything funny.
When you look at that cast, pretty much entirely a mash up of Russell’s last two [also Academy-Award-nominated] films, it’s an achievement in and of itself that you never once think about who they were in the other movies. You completely forget that, for instance, in another world Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence fell in love (rather than had almost no scenes together), Christian Bale was just the brother of the guy Amy Adams fell for, or that Robert De Niro tried his best to get a mentally unstable Bradley Cooper to just sit down and watch the Eagles game with him (rather than completely intimidating him and everyone else as a former mob enforcer).
There’s a reason why this movie is called ‘American‘ Hustle, and it’s not just because of where the movie is set. As a country, there’s always been a broader notion of America, typified by the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”. The symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, the American eagle, six red stripes, seven red stripes, and a hell of a lot of stars. It’s the belief that somewhere out there is something better combined with the improbability of the story being told in American Hustle that brings it all together and evinces the phrase, “Only in America.” Even though Irv and Sydney, initially small-time con artists, find themselves embroiled in mob rules and government fraud, in the end, they find their way out using the same skills they’ve had all along.
It’s hard to put into words just what makes American Hustle just so special and work just so well. On the other hand, so far I’ve managed to write 1,500 or so words at least tangentially related to the topic, so I guess it’s not impossible. Taken on its own, what I’ve written is certainly enough to garner discussion in the movie awards season we find ourselves in, but what makes American Hustle great is that, for all of its best writing, best production design, best costume design and best film editing, it’s a ultimately a small, meaningful, emotionally resonant story about con artists just trying to survive. It’s an utterly adult film based somewhat in reality that still has a happy ending, and sometimes it’s just that uplifting sensibility in a movie about some pretty messed up people that pulls a movie from great to movie of the year.
American Hustle final score: 9