Impossibly, Somehow: “American Hustle”

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American Hustle exists. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? The film about con men in the 1970s is the funniest film I’ve seen all year, but many of its laughs are the kind that bug my conscience. Some even come through tears. There’s as much lust for life as in any film I’ve seen in recent memory. Its cast of characters is the most passive-aggressive since All About Eve, and that was made in 1950.

American Hustle is deeply American. Every character wants that next leg up. Every character thinks he or she’s the one to get it. Everyone has that extra drive and that bit of luck we’re all convinced we have in our very best moments. Every character lives in dread and survives through hope. Christian Bale plays con artist Irving Rosenfeld, potbellied, middle-aged, and sporting “a rather elaborate combover.” His partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who plays the part of English royalty as much to forget she’s a small-town girl from Albuquerque as to bamboozle her helpless marks. Irving and Sydney’s operation is light on its feet, until it’s busted by the FBI. Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) isn’t interested in prosecuting them, however. He wants to use their talents to take down politicians and make a name for himself.

American Hustle loves its characters enough to put them through hell. Against Irving’s better instincts, he helps Richie create an irresistible “investment opportunity” – the rebuilding of Atlantic City. The plot is based on Abscam, an FBI sting operation that netted the conviction of one U.S. senator, six representatives, and a variety of other corrupt politicians. (Can we please launch Abscam 2?) Writer-director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) isn’t interested in politics, however. He’s barely interested in the sting operation. He lets you know what you need to know when you need to know it.

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American Hustle is instead obsessed with the con each character plays on him or herself in order to make it day-to-day. Characters trick themselves and each other so often that most cease to be happy without a steady diet of deception. Love triangles have nothing on the flow chart going on between Irving, Richie, Sydney, Sydney’s alter-ego Lady Edith Greensly, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Rosalyn’s mob suitor Pete (Jack Huston), and Richie’s fiancee. Each character has a moment when they try to come clean to someone they trust, and each character has a moment when they are soundly rejected. These moments are one and the same.

American Hustle knows that in a world of con artists and men who only value their own renown, an honest man is doomed. The only one trying to do right by his fellow man is also the only character you’re certain will suffer in the end. Mayor Carmine Polito’s (Jeremy Renner) only interest is in securing funds to rebuild Atlantic City and put his constituency back to work. In him, Richie sees a big conviction and his ticket to the big leagues. Irving sees the betrayal of a kindred spirit, of the only man who cares at all to change the sort of conditions that made Irving what he is. Renner invests such earnestness and empathy in Polito that his unsuspecting role in the con becomes tragic – except for the parts where you’re laughing.

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American Hustle proves Christian Bale is the most capable chameleon of an actor working today. Two weeks ago, I reviewed Out of the Furnace. A few nights ago, I re-watched Batman Begins on TV. Yesterday, I enjoyed American Hustle. Bale is the common thread: heartbreaking in one, iconic in the next, and – through a deeply affected performance – the most genuine thing on-screen in American Hustle. It’s a rare actor who can make a philandering con man on the downside of his career this endearing and earnest.

American Hustle is really the crowning achievement of its entire cast. Amy Adams mines a depth of pathos I had never even suspected. Her Sydney is so alluring and full of verve she’s contagious, but so out-of-control and vindictive it must be viral. Bradley Cooper has been working up to Richie DiMaso for a long time, and as an agent becoming a legend in his own head, he provides much of the film’s comedy. One scene, in which Sydney tries to reveal who she really is to Richie, reflects the whole film – hilarious at one instant, sexually charged in the next, and nearly ending on a violent note that would derail the entire plot. The sharp turns in mood and energy of it all would be over-the-top if it wasn’t so finely controlled by the director and his actors. Instead, these moments become so deeply felt that aggressive, out-of-control, and over-the-top become smooth, soft, and supple.

American Hustle is the announcement that Jennifer Lawrence is both the actress of the moment, and of her generation. As Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, she naturally enamors whomsoever crosses her path without the effort Sydney has to put into conning them. Lawrence commands the screen every second she’s on it.

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American Hustle is the cinematic embodiment of jazz. It throws the hopes and dreams of four unstoppable objects together and basks in the human drama and paradoxical comedy that arises from it. It weaves four brilliant soloists together, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in conflict, and it demands everything these actors have, every shred of commitment and ounce of energy. These characters are each awful, and we should hate them, yet we feel sympathy. We root for them because we recognize their acute panic at being lost in life, controlled by others. We know that drowning feeling that you’re less and less who you thought you could be by the day. We root for them because they’re each so hopeful.

American Hustle is an impossibly brave film, constantly an inch away from being too ridiculous. It feels more real than real, supersaturated with feeling and color only in the way movies can be, yet too embarrassingly private in the way only life is. It’s charged, it’s classic, it’s a masterpiece and one big put-on all at once. The more absurd a moment, the more it matters. It knows what all the notes are but doesn’t look at the sheet music because it’ll play what it wants – it knows how the music should feel – and, somehow, that becomes the more perfect way to do it.

American Hustle, like its characters, is determined to make sure you know it exists. And boy oh boy, does it ever exist.

American Hustle exists. Somehow.

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American Hustle is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and brief violence.

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