Talking Movies: American Hustle is a surreal encounter with history, lies and strange romance

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.

Surely there has never been a more provocative time to make a movie about deception, especially deception by the agencies of the US government. Had the 1978 FBI had access to the sort of metadata that modern intelligence agencies do, they likely could have wrapped up Abscam in about a week, probably with no physical money actually changing hands. This aspect of the story, fortunately, is not of much interest to David O. Russell in his highly fictionalized look at some of the events surrounding Abscam in his most recent film, American Hustle.

Instead, Russell wants to tell a more complicated story about the complex and compelling relationship between small-scale loan shark and art forger Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and grifter Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The two characters meet at a pool party and bond over bizarre swimwear and a shared love of Duke Ellington. They soon collaborate on a series of fake loans involving imaginary British banking connections and their relationship deepens in the context of their scams (since, for both characters, sleeping with someone comes way before actually trusting them). Everything is predictable, and controlled—just as Irving likes it—when suddenly they loan fake money to undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). As a result, Irving and Sydney spend the rest of the movie trying to escape doing Richie’s bidding as part of a deal to avoid prosecution. His plans come to include stings to catch corrupt politicians who think they are taking bribes from an Arabian sheik (who in actuality is sometimes a Palestinian roofer from Long Island and sometimes a chubby Latino FBI agent).

American Hustle is both very familiar and simultaneously refreshing. It utilizes many of the standard tropes of all con movies: the constant sense of paranoia, the tenseness of the love affair, the ability of actors to play a role within a role (Amy Adams is so good at this that you are shocked to be reminded late in the film that her British accent is fake) and, inevitably, the “con within the con” that leads to the film’s resolution. There are huge cinematic names here as well, including Russell staple Jennifer Lawrence in a great performance as Irving’s disaster-prone wife and Robert De Niro as the Arabic-speaking Victor Tellegio, a mob boss who is fronting the money to build casinos in New Jersey—a role De Niro has all but copyrighted.

Russell’s deeper themes, though, are modern ones with which the NSA might not be all that uncomfortable: Everyone is lying, but on a different scale and for different reasons. Some lies are for the good, some for the selfish and some for the desperate. But, as Irving warns us repeatedly, the lies cannot be too big: Once ambition gets in the way of strategy, even the best hustle falls apart.

People create stories which they want to believe and the good con merely gives them a way to believe it, whether it is a museum’s belief that their forgery is really a great Rembrandt, the gambler’s belief that there is a safe way for him to get out of debt or the US government’s belief that it can control the corruption within its ranks and provide legitimate safety for its citizens. All these stories fall apart, however, when the ambitions of the liar compromise his or her ability to control the lie.

Russell’s visual aesthetic is colorful but unforgiving. We see conversations in close-up—pores, blemishes, stray mustache hairs, the politician’s pompadour brushes the con-man’s eyeglasses as they lean in for discrete words over a cocktail table. Bale will remind you of Dennis Franz with a New Jersey accent—the opening scene, in which Irving assembles his hairdo with an eclectic combination of toupee, scalp adhesive and comb-over acrobatics is alone worth the price of admission. Bale is ugly and fat in a charming sort of way and at last freed from the absurd, granite-faced proclamations he is forced to deliver in the Batman movies. He seems to embrace this freedom and is more appealing for it. The color is ‘70s chic—glittery but pale—and the whole film gives us the feel of Saturday Night Fever narrated by Henry Hill. As has often been pointed out, the Scorsese references run deep.  Jeremy Renners’s excellent portrayal of Camden Mayor Carmine Polito will remind you of a straight-laced Joe Pesci, and the scene where he takes Irving out on the town to determine whether or not to buy into the con is almost right out of Goodfellas.

American Hustle is at the same time the weirdest romantic comedy you will see this year, a quasi-historical morality tale about deceptions and a surrealistic tour through what we can only wish the clothes and hairstyles of the late 1970s actually looked like. Miraculously, it fulfills all of these roles entertainingly, roles that probably no director would actually set out to address in a film. Golden Globe and Oscar voters will have a strange experience determining whether American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave better recaptures a critical period of the American past and the lessons we are supposed to have learned from it. Their better judgment will no doubt suggest a ballot for the commendable project of Steve McQueen and John Ridley, but movie executives, hustlers that they are, may find that their own sympathies demand otherwise.