If there’s any message to American Hustle, it’s the idea that we’re all con men to some degree or another. Whether it’s power, money, food, love, or the latest tech gadget, even the most innocent of us will manipulate others to get what we want. It’s human nature. When we con someone, we deceive them. We play a part, act a certain way to get exactly what you want. Sometimes, we even con ourselves. A con at its worst is pure betrayal. With those heavy ideas in mind, the fact that David O’ Russell was able to put together such a funny and entertaining film is quite an achievement.
In American Hustle, Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) is a con man who has been swindling people long before he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams.) Not only do they begin a whirlwind romance, but more importantly, the duo expands Irving’s business of scamming innocent people. It’s a dizzying, carnival ride – full of froth and fizz and money until… they get caught. And then, there’s a need for Alka-seltzer.
Enter Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the FBI agent who nabs them and coerces the duo to get involved in a sting operation to bring down corrupt politicians. If Irving and Sydney work with Richie on the sting, they’ll be freed of the fraud charges against them. In other words, they really have no choice. It’s a set-up loosely based on the Abscam operation of the late ’70s and ’80s that brought down a U.S. Senator and several members of the House of Representatives, among others.
In American Hustle, everyone’s conning everyone and the truth gets hidden behind a veil of deceit. It’s a comical game of cat and mouse with an excellent ensemble cast – including the wild card: Rosalyn, Irving’s volatile firecracker of a wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and a surprisingly understated Louis C.K. as Richie’s FBI boss, Stoddard Thorsen.
The film is the latest in a string of recent triumphs for director David O’ Russell. As widely known, he had quite a dry spell after his 2004 existential comedy, I Heart Huckabees. Critics dismissed Huckabees and audiences flat out ignored the film. It was also haunted by a well-documented tantrum O’Russell had with Lily Tomlin on the set. Thanks to Youtube, the video probably got more audience views than the film. Most people didn’t get it, but I appreciate the existential wackiness of I Heart Huckabees. I also like O’Russell’s earlier film, Spanking The Monkey-even though it’s weird and well, kinda creepy. After Huckabees though, the director went silent… for SIX years. And Hollywood seemingly moved on without him.
During that time, from most reports (and from David O’Russell himself), the director both grew up and mellowed out. When he took the gig on The Fighter, it was as a “for hire” director only. The studios no longer expected great things from the director. At the time, he was lucky to be helming a film, but surprisingly it was The Fighter that put David O’ Russell back onto Hollywood’s star map. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards – including Best Picture and Best Director. The Fighter brought David O’Russell back swinging. In 2012, he followed up with Silver Linings Playbook. That film hit theaters and subsequently earned 8 Academy Award Nominations including a Best Actress nod for ingénue actress, Jennifer Lawrence, whom he’d work with again on American Hustle.
His latest, American Hustle, may be splashy and flashy and all around effervescent. Yes, it’s a comical drama, a farce, with little splashes of camp thrown in for good measure. It’s a throwback to the screwball comedies no one makes anymore. Some have criticized that it’s too flamboyant for its own good. That it’s glitzy enough to fool even the most savvy audience member, the harshest critic, and the most knowledgeable Academy member. If that’s the case then David O’Russell has conned us all.
In my estimation, it’s not a perfect film, but no film ever is. What American Hustle has going for it is that you are swept up in the con world the characters inhabit. Its sheer glamour seduces you because you’re witnessing these larger-than-life characters acting screwy, making bad decisions, and one-upping each other with their cons. More than likely, you find yourself enjoying the experience and perhaps feeling a bit guilty about it because these characters are not good people. They’re criminals when you get right down to it: white-collar criminals who rise to the top not because of talent, luck or hard work, but by cheating all along the way. American Hustle is about people you’d do anything to get away from in real life. Maybe that’s one reason why they’re so fun to watch on the big screen. American Hustle is nominated for 10 Academy Awards.