The con is on in David O. Russell’s hilarious history lesson
Directed by David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence
For those who remember, the ABSCAM scandal of the late-’70s was the capper on an era that had already given us such political shockers as Vietnam and Watergate. But the exposure of corrupt politicians was so sloppily handled by the FBI that it injected Americans with a whole new level of disappointment—teaching us that not even those who are tasked with rooting out malfeasance are necessarily worthy of praise. That pervasive sense of distrust has only grown in today’s post-Edward Snowden/Julian Assange world. Who do we hate more: the wrongdoers or the whistleblowers? The criminals or the cops?
Director David O. Russell takes us back to the straw that broke the camel’s back with his viciously witty crime film American Hustle. Using ABSCAM as a springboard, Russell has created a quintessentially American black comedy. (“Some of this actually happened,” announces a pre-credit slug.) By launching pointed jabs at government, big business and law enforcement, he’s located the moment when the American Dream became the American Scheme.
The year is 1978. At the center of Russell’s manic, ensemble romp is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, proving his commitment by going fat and bald). Irv is a good, old-fashioned New Jersey shyster. He makes his scratch by selling counterfeit paintings, scamming people with fake loans and otherwise ripping people off any way he can. One day he meets and falls madly in love with kindred spirit Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams in her best role to date). This proves to be something of a problem as Irving is a lying, cheating con man. And already married to boot. But Sydney is a more kindred spirit than Irving could have ever hoped. A stripper with a taste for money and a talent for reinvention, Sydney is immediately attracted to Irving’s world of grand falsehoods. Add to that the fact that Irving’s wife Rosalyn (the welcome-at-any-party Jennifer Lawrence) is nothing more than a beautiful millstone around his neck. So what’s wrong with a little love and larceny in disco-era America?
Unfortunately Irv and Sydney are soon busted by an eager-beaver FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Desperate to catch some bigger fish, Richie blackmails the couple into helping him entrap the mayor of Atlantic City (Jeremy Renner in an atypical cameo). New Jersey has just legalized gambling, and the mayor is desperate to start building casinos in his town to bolster a foundering economy—so desperate he’s probably willing to accept bribes. Taking lessons from his unwilling accomplices, Richie scams the mayor into setting up a massive construction kickback program. But Richie gets greedy, manufacturing ever more elaborate lies involving Arabic sheiks and Miami mobsters in order to haul bigger and bigger fish into his boat. Why settle for a mayor when a senator is on the hook?
Despite its subject matter—which could easily have lent itself to a gritty, Martin Scorsese-style treatment—American Hustle is Russell’s most accessible film to date. Even in his last big hit, Silver Linings Playbook, Russell still failed to sand down the thorny, antisocial edges that marked his early work (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees). American Hustle is a total crowd-pleaser—mesmerizing, sexy and consistently hilarious. But it’s not just a wacky Ocean’s 11-style heist film. It’s not just a trip through the bad hair, awful clothes and painful wallpaper of the late ’70s. The script has a lot to say about the lies and falsehoods that seem like our Constitutional right. Our main characters are the type of con artists who are so good at what they do, they’d really rather live the lie. Maybe Irv really does want to be a legitimate art dealer. Maybe Sydney would be happier as a real English lady in love with a guy who isn’t married. Maybe Richie’s undercover play-acting is more interesting than his own stunted homelife. Kudos to the topflight cast members. They’re all too big to completely vanish into their characters, but they bring out a lot of subtle emotions between the laughs. Lawrence is especially great, taking her crazy-sexy housewife harridan of a character and making her the boisterous center of every scene she inhabits.
Underneath it all, American Hustle is a melancholy takedown of our collective illusions. People aren’t what they seem. The government is lying to you. The cops are corrupt. Love is a fraud. The system, to put it bluntly, is rigged. But this is no cynical piece of cinema. American Hustle is an exhilarating invitation to a world where up is down and right is wrong. If the system is rigged, then shysters, hucksters and scammers are the only ones fully equipped to navigate it. These characters may be indefensible, but they’re also pretty damn irresistible.