The working title of American Hustle was American Bullshit, and though that title would have never allowed it entry into the multiplexes, it’s much more apt. Not only is bullshit one of the more frequently used epithets in the film, but the whole concept of that word–that nothing in America is real, and can be manipulated into something else–pervades the story.
Set in the corrupt world of New Jersey politics, with its protagonists a pair of con artists and a slightly askew FBI agent, American Hustle is one of those movies that we used to say lifts the rock on what goes on in America. We’ve said that so often though that I don’t think the rock needs lifting–it’s been permanently lifted.
Here’s the thing–though you want to take a shower after watching it, it has a tremendous amount of heart, and all of the characters, though extremely flawed and not the people you’d want in your house, are sympathetic. Even when at odds with each other, you root for all of them, none more than Irving Rosenfeld, inhabited by Christian Bale. We first see him elaborately preparing his comb-over, with what looks like glue and pubic hair. How can you not love a guy like that?
Co-written and directed by David O. Russell, it shares many actors from his recent films and a common thread–badly damaged people. It’s not as good as The Fighter of the sterling Silver Lining’s Playbook–it’s a little too long and parts of it gave me a headache. But there are moments that make it all worthwhile.
The film starts in media res with Bale, along with his mistress (Amy Adams) being used by FBI agent Bradley Cooper trying to sting the mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner) into taking a bribe to smooth the entry of casinos into Atlantic City. We then see flashbacks, narrated by a variety of characters, the sort of equivalent of a novel having several different narrators. Bale plays a guy who owns a few dry cleaning stores, but makes his money in a loan shark racket that I never fully understood. He meets Adams, an ex-stripper, who takes to the life like a duck to water, even using a phony British accent.
Problem: Bale is married to Jennifer Lawrence, an ancestor of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (the action is set in 1978). She wants Bale, but so does Adams, though Cooper also wants Adams. So we have two love triangles and the highly fictionalized Abscam operation, the real FBI sting that netted a U.S. senator.
Russell obviously watched Goodfellas quite a few times while making this. We have a lot of transitions scored by hits of the era, and even Robert DeNiro shows up as a Mafia don. There are all those narrators, and a sense of overwhelming dread, as Bale grows to like Renner and can’t stand that he’s going to send him to jail. Cooper, his personality as tight as the curls on his head, lives with his mother and tries to undermine his straight-laced boss (Louis C.K.), even going so far as to hit him in the head with a telephone.
At times the pace is just too much, and the whole thing is awash in business. But when it slows down and focuses on character, I liked it. The acting is pretty great. Bale, unrecognizable as the same man who was Batman or in The Fighter, is fantastic, putting on weight and affecting a Bronx accent. Adams, who I like in roles like this (she should just stick with Russell) is very good as a woman who has no other options. Lawrence is another actor who should stick with Russell, as she takes a cliche and turns into a living breathing human being, with vulnerability. Renner is a corrupt politician who only wants to do well by his constituents, and is the character with the most pathos.
Cooper is the weak link, but I think the character is the least-well written. It’s hard to get past the perm.
I was somewhat disappointed with American Hustle, in that it’s not as good as Russell’s recent films, but I still recommend it. I’d actually like to see it again, as I can pick up the plot points I missed.
My grade for American Hustle: B-.