‘American Hustle’ Is Audacious And Reckless And Cocky And Beautiful, Just Like America
In the runup to the release of American Hustle, there were a lot of virtual newspaper inches devoted to trying to figure out how much of the film — based on the infamous Abscam operation — was real and how much was the invention of director David O. Russell. The answer is that it really doesn’t matter. (However, if you feel a burning need to sort out what really happened and what didn’t, or need a primer on Abscam because you are a young ‘un, this is probably a good place to start.) The story is a con within a con within a con, and you’re never going to be able to sort out fact from fiction. You don’t need to, and you’re not supposed to.
Abscam was a now almost quaint-seeming FBI operation from the late 1970s that netted a fistful of Congresscritters on corruption charges by shopping around a very very rich but very very fake sheik who was eager to invest in American development if only certain wheels could be greased. By modern movie and real-life standards, such an operation seems tame. No one gets killed. Nothing gets blown up.
Here, it’s the jumping-off point for the story of Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time grifter with dreams of elegance, played by Christian Bale, who has clearly been attending the Robert De Niro School of Method Acting And Weight Gain. He runs cons for the money, of course, but also for the sheer joy of inventing a persona. He finds his equal, if not his better, in Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser. Where Rosenfeld has a persona that is simply aspirational — he’d like to be a bigger better deal than he actually is — hers is a complete reinvention. She stops being Sydney entirely, instead becoming a genteel English lady with vague royal connections and equally vague banking connections, all the better to ensnare victims of her and Rosenfeld’s loan scams. Even after she and Rosenfeld are arrested by FBI agent Richie DiMaso, played with marvelous spiraling-out-of-control jittery madness by Bradley Cooper, she never stops being Lady Edith.
Once Rosenfeld and Prosser are arrested, they are at DiMaso’s beck and call and scam upon scam upon scam unfolds as DiMaso tries to get at the real evildoers, who are always one level up from whoever he’s currently managed to (en)trap. The utterly nonsensical (yet actually real life) sheik scheme grabs Camden New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner sporting the most magnificent late period Elvis wannabe hair ever) early, and he then serves as useful bait for bigger fish the rest of the film.
This is a quintessentially. almost stereotypically, American film visually. Everything is bright and loud and wide and boorish and manic and charming. It’s also a quintessentially American film about class and social climbing and faking it until you make it and being able to shed your boring self like an old skin. Nowhere is that more evident than in the films Russell chooses to ape/homage. Rosenfeld’s looking backwards first person voice-over narration is pure Goodfellas, and the parties and the hair and the decor and the everything is straight out of Boogie Nights — part sly joke, part loving nod, all lush and overdone.
In a movie full of great performances, Jennifer Lawrence gallops away with the entire film in the utterly unnecessary role of Rosenfeld’s wife that he long ago set aside to entangle himself with Prosser and his own more exciting fictional self. There’s literally no reason for the wife character to be in the film, and it actually leads to some complicated love triangle quadrangle quintangle issues down the line, but that doesn’t matter because Lawrence is a delight. Where Amy Adams plays Prosser with a rigid intensity that befits someone who has to reinvent herself or die, Lawrence’s character is completely and utterly herself, and she can’t be any other way. She’s louche and brash, gorgeous and undone. And yes yes yes she and Amy Adams do kiss but it’s a reckless fuck you kiss, not a sexy kiss, exactly as it should be.
There are many easy-to-catch 1970s references in the film. Everyone has terrible hair, everyone has wide ties, many people have the permanent red eyes that come with a coke habit that started out recreational and slid into daily. By far the funniest, though, are the most subtle, such as when Prosser is walking through the Cosmopolitan offices (her job before she becomes a con artist) and you see an enormous wall-sized version of the infamous Burt Reynolds Cosmopolitan centerfold
…or when Jennifer Lawrence, having set something in motion that nearly gets Rosenfeld killed, tells him she meant to do that to motivate him because she’s been reading Wayne Dyer and learning to act with the power of intention.
At the end of it all, you’ll still be sorting out who conned who and when but you won’t care, because you’ll have had a wonderful time.