Movie review: American Hustle

(image via impawards.com)
(image via impawards.com)

 

If there is one thing that David O. Russell’s sublime new movie American Hustle, establishes very early on, it’s that appearances can be deceiving.

As this affectionate, and at turns dramatically intense and comically over the top tribute to the 1970s opens, we see Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a small time con man from the Bronx, artfully arranging his hairpiece into place before combing over what remains of his real hair.

Along with his paunch, it is meant to convey the impression of a bottom-feeding lowlife with delusions of grandeur, the very person we would ordinarily be rooting against in a conventional cops ‘n’ crooks thriller, in this case one that imaginatively recreates the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s in which several high profile Federal politicians were caught taking bribes from a fake Arab sheikh as part of an extensive FBI operation.

But this is no ordinary crime thriller, and Rosenfeld is not the man you are initially led to believe he is, as he swaggers along the hallway to join girlfriend and fellow con artist with a posh English accent Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in a sting operation designed to net hard working New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

Forced into reluctant collusion with the Feds after DiMaso nabs Rosenfeld and Prosser, who share a sweet, enduring bond that is sorely tested throughout the film, in an illegal loans scheme, Rosenfeld is actually the holder of an exemplary moral code who goes to great lengths at a number of points in the movie to do the “right thing”.

 

(image via impawards.com)
(image via impawards.com)

 

The voice of reason when DiMaso, a man with no agenda other than his own rapid self-promotion at all costs, loses his completely, Rosenfeld is the beating moral heart of American Hustle, along with Prosser, the very epitome of sanity and sound advice when everyone around him, caught in a scheme spinning to nab everyone from Congressmen to high level mob operatives that is rapidly spinning out of control, is in the grip of wild, insatiable, and often comical, insanity.

David O. Russell, who also penned the tautly-arranged screenplay, quickly positions Rosenfeld as an American dreamer of sorts, a man of limited options and means (despite the business left to him by his father), who is quick to admit that “the act of survival is a story that never ends.”

Along with Prosser, whose “dream, more than anything else, was to become anyone other than who I was”, he is simply trying, by means fair and foul, to get somewhere other than where he is, to re-invent a life that he finds sorely lacking.

But the beauty of both Bale and Adam’s performances is that the manage to render their characters as sympathetic players in an ethically flawed universe, the only ones who manage to keep any semblance of morality intact in a cast of characters who long ago, for the most part, threw any moral code out the window.

 

(image via impawards.com)
(image via impawards.com)

 

They are not paragons of moral virtue by an stretch of the imagination but they are at least self-aware, and honest enough to admit why they do what they do, their reasonably pure motivations standing in stark contrast to DiMaso’s increasingly unhinged and buffoonish FBI agent, who sees nothing wrong with ever more outlandish schemes if its nabs him the crooks, and far more importantly, recognition and glory.

DiMaso is driven not by any sense of justice but by an irrational hubris, the idea that he deserves to escape his working class roots, his sweet but conventional fiancee (who he happily angles to cheat on with Prosser with almost no compunction) and his much put upon mother.

His is not a virtuous life in any way, and it’s a tribute to Russell’s screenwriting and directorial skills that this upending of the moral universe, which unfolds in ever-increasingly ludicrous ways, comes across as meaningful and dramatically heartfelt even as it resembles a circus of madmen high on something highly illegal.

 

(image via comicbook.com)
(image via comicbook.com)

 

Russell even manages to keep us on Rosenfeld’s side when we learn that he is cheating on his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, who gleefully plays against type to great effect), a woman of limited intellect but grand self-delusion who is convinced she is the one with all the nous, intellectual, emotional and otherwise, who has trapped her husband in an unhappy marriage that neither of them particularly enjoys anymore.

While Rosenfeld stays true to his initial commitment to Prosser, and to those like Polito with whom he forms a close bond, Rosalyn jumps ships at the first available opportunity acting as if she is the one who saw the emptiness of the relationship and self-sacrificially did something about it.

As the events of American Hustle unfold, and the private demons, peccadilloes and naked ambitions of many of the players spill out on a public stage in an almost farcical fashion, all without for one second lessening the inherent dramatic tension, Russell does a masterful job of underlining that people don’t always play the roles assigned to them, the ones we take great comfort as a society in expecting people to uphold.

DiMaso is not the blemish-free upholder of truth, justice and the American Way, Rosalyn is not the loyal stand-by-your-man wife, neither Rosenfeld or Prosser are amoral small time crooks whose only concern is his only self-aggrandizement, and Polito, while a man on the take, actually passionately cares about his community and is genuinely working for their betterment.

 

(image via impawards.com)
(image via impawards.com)

 

This willingness to play with the expected personas and motivations of the figures who usually populate movies of this ilk, means that American Hustle is pleasingly truthful in its portrayal of the human condition, acknowledging that we live in a world of greys and half-truths and murky motivations, and that nothing is ever as straightforward it might appear.

David O. Russell does a superlative job of drawing these truths out in a manner that deftly mixes humour and pathos, drama and farce, without once compromising the compelling story he is telling.

He is helped by first rate performances by everyone concerned, including De Niro as a mobster boss in an uncredited but utterly effective cameo, a screenplay that uses every last scene and line of dialogue as judiciously as possible, and a wonderful eye for portraying the foibles of humanity in an engaging, thoroughly entertaining way.

American Hustle is being positioned as one of the lead Oscar contenders, as is Russell for his masterful turn as director, one of those rare occasions when the hype and the accolades are completely and richly deserved.

 

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