By Jacob Mertens.
David O. Russell’s American Hustle begins with a title card stating “Some of this actually happened,” and for once a Hollywood film makes an honest claim to real events. Upon closer examination though, Russell had little choice but to say so. His film features well-developed characters, but they are characters drawn up from pulp narratives. They are con artists, larger-than-life personalities, altogether charming and destructive. They hold the screen captive as beguiling anti-heroes, but there can be no doubt that they exist in film and film alone. American Hustle‘s premise feels surreal so it fits in nicely. However, the FBI did use a known con-man to entrap corrupt politicians in the 1970s and 80s, cleaning house on a political landscape still reeling from the debacle of Watergate. The Abscam scandal is a historical reality, a dark mark on America’s fledgling democracy. In more serious hands, Hustle might have offered an indictment on America both past and present, intimating that our modern politicians have not changed all that much. In Russel’s hands though, the film’s absurd characters undermine the con’s implications. As a result, political corruption becomes a footnote amidst oddball dialogue and complicated love triangles. Whether audiences would admit to it or not, this is likely the film they would rather see.
American Hustle starts with voice over narratives that shift from one character to another as the story develops. The film begins with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), an overweight, balding confidence man with a penchant for forgery and a love of Duke Ellington. Irving offers easy exposition on his criminal background, a light run-up befitting a Scorsese film. When Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is introduced though, the tone veers toward introspection as her internal monologue takes over. Sydney has no criminal background, but through her we can see what makes Irving compelling. What’s more, when she confides “My dream, more than anything, was to become anyone else other than who I was,” we gain insight into the catalyst for her crimes. From here, an intimate voice over tête-à-tête between the two details their falling in love and starting a fraudulent investment firm. Irving becomes more expansive and emotionally involved as he describes Sydney; her sensitivity seems to be a gentling influence on him. Meanwhile, Sydney becomes more detail oriented as her affair with Irving and her foray into crime gives her something to focus on. Throughout the opening act, the voice overs cover a lot of narrative ground in a short amount of time, serving a mercenary purpose. Even so, they also illustrate the complexities of Irving and Sydney’s relationship in a succinct and often poetic way.
When Irving and Sydney’s sham organization is broken up by undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), he extorts the unlawful lovebirds to help him pull off an even bigger sting. As the film shifts to Richie’s voice over, it serves as a rude interruption. But the agent is now part of the confidence game and his involvement in the film’s storytelling is inevitable. The film drags a little as the Abscam premise forces the voice over expositions to last longer than they should, but the inclusion of Irving’s combative, irrational wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) derails the film’s overarching narrative—and in the best possible way. While American Hustle offers a kaleidoscope of fascinating performances, Lawrence stands out and justifies her plaudits playing a woman who, according to her husband, is “the Picasso of passive aggressive karate.” Rosalyn rails about how the science oven (read: microwave) steals all the nutrients from her food, she threatens to take Irving’s son away when he talks about divorce, and she unwittingly involves herself in Irving’s con without a clue that it’s taking place. The woman is an accident waiting to happen, she is crude and loud. Nevertheless, she is utterly enthralling for it.
There is a tenderness beneath Rosalyn’s bravado as well, and slowly the viewer gets the sense that she manipulates Irving into staying with her because she is terrified to be without him. Meanwhile, Irving struggles to resolve his feelings toward the one he loves and the one he is compelled to be with, a conflict exacerbated by the film’s con because it forces the two women to share the screen together. Sydney responds by seducing Richie, in part because it could provide her leverage to escape criminal prosecution, and in part because she feels betrayed. Richie, on the other hand, remains oblivious to the romantic power struggles at work. Instead, he revels in a false sense of authority even as events begin to spin wildly out of his control. In short, all characters have their own personal crises to worry them as the film plays out. The way each of them responds helps to define their inherent differences, showing an emotional depth in Russel’s writing.
American Hustle is a very small, intimate story masquerading as something larger. It finds David O. Russel at the height of his powers as a storyteller, drawing the audience in with a tour de force of manic, self-conscious dialogue that puts the writer-director’s previous best Silver Linings Playbook (2012) to shame. That said, the film’s inventiveness is most clearly felt with its nuanced decision-making. For instance, after Sydney gets arrested for fraud and is temporarily released, she meets with Irving and begins to plan a long con on Agent DiMaso. As the con takes shape in her mind, she starts to speak in an English accent halfway through her monologue—a shift so slight it barely registers. To give a little context, this is the same accent she used for her assumed identity with the investment firm as Lady Edith Greensley, and signifies her character putting on an act. So when Sydney uses this accent to tell Irving that maybe she does like Richie DiMaso, suggesting that she could leave him for the agent if Irving does not divorce his wife, her self-deception is easily felt. The accent becomes a means for Sydney to protect and distance herself, both from criminal fallout and her emotional involvement with a married man. It also allows Sydney to follow through on her desire to become anyone else other than herself, a self-fulfilling prophecy that does her more harm than good. The characterization may be subtle but it lends to American Hustle‘s attention to detail and accentuates the importance of each character’s personal struggles. Ultimately, the film can posture all it wants as a gaudy send-up for political corruption and white collar crime, but it largely plays as a sensitive love story. Maybe that marks the film’s true con, and if so it more or less goes off without a hitch.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.