With its ensemble cast, this film has received almost unanimous accolades for the universally stunning performances, under the direction of David O. Russell. Still at the top of his game (after “I Heart Huckabees”, “The Fighter”, and “Silver Linings Playbook”). All of Russell’s movies, intentionally or not, are the embodiment of a certain malaise, the sense that we have lost our community spirit, and everyone is on his or her own. It is a war of all against all, or at least a cold indifference of all to all.
“American Hustle” is about the ultimate con game, of which there have been many in US history involving financial get-quick schemes. (“Hustle” is purportedly based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970’s). How far are people willing to go to grasp the golden ring, to try to capture the American Dream: namely, wealth as synonymous with identity and happiness? “American Hustle” goes even further, digging deeper into how much we lie to ourselves, in order to believe what we want to believe.
But on a more personal level, this film is also about human relationships: who can be trusted and who can’t. That is the nature of a con game: building trust only to deceive and swindle. In “Hustle” we see the main character, Irving Rosenfeld (another riveting performance by Christian Bale), a vain and insecure man obsessed with combing over his bald spot, try to build a successful business presence in New Jersey through a small dry-cleaning chain. Enter Amy Adams, also a mover and shaker, as the beautiful Sydney Prosser, who wants to badly leave her personal history behind and who quickly becomes Rosenfeld’s astute business partner and lover. Irving and Sydney soon discover how a con game can connect them to greater financial opportunities. Together they meet Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, again surprising with a winning interpretation of human vanity, ambition, and vulnerability), a mafia kingpin (Robert DeNiro), and the Camden, New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner). (A small part by Louis CK as the FBI supervisor is exceptionally well-played too.) Rosenfeld’s dealings with these characters hinges on a masterful scheme that will scandalize and destroy all its participants.
The small part played by Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the wife and mother of Irving’s child, is virtuoso acting that startles at times. Lawrence is almost unrecognizable in body, facial expressions, and voice. When she is on screen, my eyes could rest on no one else. Each slither and flirtatious gesture is both brassy and calculated, suggesting an intelligence beneath the bleached blond hair of a bimbo. As Rosalyn, Lawrence eliminates the stereotypes of what intelligence should look like and be like. Amy Adams is the perfect counterpoint: both are exceptionally beautiful sexy women, in love with the same man, in a zero sum game.
“American Hustle” boasts a combination of craftsmanship and delectable moviegoing pleasure set in a time period of disco, that holds a nostalgic if discomforting appeal to baby boomers. The hustle to survive is just that: all are wounded and no one heals. Run to see it so you can enjoy it for its own value and then wait to see if it wins Best Picture from the Academy Awards!