American Hustle

Everybody is on the take or on the make in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, shifting and grifting their way through a post-Watergate, pre-Reaganomics America. The time is 1978, and the premise is rooted in fact: a real, New York–based FBI sting operation that ensnared a half-dozen United States congressmen and assorted other officials on bribery and corruption charges. But period details aside, American Hustle reaches for something timeless. It’s a portrait of palm-greasing and flimflamming as the very lingua franca of American life, a movie about the lies we tell—not least to ourselves—just to get through the day. 

In reality, the sting was called Abscam, reportedly short for “Arab scam” or the slightly more PC “Abdul scam,” and in either case a nod to the ersatz Arab sheik (actually an undercover FBI agent) who offered politicos generous cash “gifts” in exchange for favors that ranged from money laundering to expedited citizenship. When Abscam made headlines in the early Eighties, it did so as much for its prize catches as for its questionable methods, including the recruitment of a convicted con artist, Melvin Weinberg, as the operation’s resident technical adviser. Unsurprisingly, a movie version nearly made it to the screen at the time: Moon Over Miami, written and to be directed by Louis Malle, with John Belushi starring in the Weinberg role (it was in pre-production at the time of Belushi’s death, and subsequently scrapped).

American Hustle itself began as a more conventional, procedural dramatization in Eric Warren Singer’s spec script American Bullshit, which was then overhauled by Russell into something so different that, at a recent screening, star Christian Bale joked that Singer’s script could still be made into its own movie with little redundancy. Probably Singer’s version was something like another Argo —a jaunty, stranger-than-fiction caper about oddball outsiders colluding with the government on a covert op. But the movie Russell has made is closer to Melvin and Howard or The Social Network in its lyrical, panoramic sense of class and self-reinvention in America, of outsiders yearning to become insiders, or at least to feel comfortable inside their own skin.

American Hustle David O. Russell

In the press notes and in interviews, Russell has positioned Hustle as the third film in a loose trilogy devoted to “people whose lives have not gone the way they wanted or intended.” But where the damaged souls of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook were effectively trying to heal themselves from the inside out, the hustlers of American Hustle are seeking wholesale escape, creating elaborate alter-egos that they wear so well that they begin to lose sight of the difference—the ultimate method actors. This is as true of the co-opted con artists themselves as it is of the ambitious FBI agent who does the co-opting.

Here, Weinberg has been transformed into Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a balding, paunchy Bronx Jew whose intricate taming of his unwieldy comb-over is like Russell’s answer to the dressing-room sequence from Raging Bull. Weinberg’s British-born mistress, Evelyn Knight, has become Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose Britishness is actually a put-on, but one she puts on to the hilt. The undercover agent Tony Amoroso is here called Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an Italian-American mamma’s boy who keeps enlarging the scope of Abscam until he’s poised to bring down Meyer Lansky and the Las Vegas mob—or, at least, thinks he is. And somewhere tucked away on Long Island is Irv’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a dingbat shrew whose ever-present tanning lamp may have fried some of her brain cells, but not her survival instincts.

Irv and Syd meet-cute at a winter pool party, to the impassioned wails of Duke Ellington’s Jeep’s Blues, and it really is love at first sight, the former exotic dancer turned Cosmo secretary drawn to the confident huckster trapped in the schlub’s body. And so they go into business together, as loan brokers with British banking connections care of Syd’s alter-ego, the ersatz royal “Lady” Edith Greensly. Just don’t ever expect to ever see the loan. “These were the roles we were born to play,” notes Irv in one of Hustle’s multiple voiceover narrations, reinforcing the idea that this is, at root, a movie about acting. (To wit, Russell stages another of Irv and Syd’s early “dates” as a kind of costume test in the backroom of a dry cleaner’s.) And play them they do, until Richie catches them in the act and puts them to work for him.

American Hustle

Everyone gets a little bit lost in their own delusions in American Hustle, and there’s something endearing about that, because those delusions are, by and large, so modest. Coming at the end of a year flush with portraits of amoral climbers short-circuiting their way to the top (Pain & Gain, The Counselor, The Wolf of Wall Street), Russell’s movie seems almost quaint in its depiction of loan sharks swindling suburban schmoes for a few grand, and politicians taking low-five-figure bribes—penny-ante stuff in the era of Bernie Madoff and the Wall Street bailout. Even junior G-man Richie just wants to make a name for himself in the Bureau, to do something important, and to feel movie-star cool—a sentiment driven home by the unforgettable sight of the character pleading his case to mom in their outer-borough kitchen, while a cascade  of plastic curlers set his naturally straight hair into tightly coiled ringlets. The clothes may make some men, but in American Hustle, it’s all about the hair.

Russell is markedly less interested in the ins and outs of Abscam (which are present in the film, but in a minor key) than in the even more intricate give and take going on behind the scenes—in Richie’s growing infatuation with Syd/Edith, Irv’s frantic juggling of the two women in his life, and his growing sympathy for Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the Camden, New Jersey mayor who becomes one of the operation’s prime targets. Polito wants the sheik’s money to invest in the rebuilding of casinos along Atlantic City’s economically depressed boardwalk, not to line his own pockets, and if he has to pay off a few folks along the way… well, is that really so bad? Indeed, it’s Polito who in some ways becomes Hustle’s grandly tragic figure, another small man of modest aims caught in the crossfire of other small men, while the big fish continue to swim free.

Perhaps one reason Russell related so strongly to this material is that he too has undergone a rather dramatic self-reinvention (and career resuscitation) in the last three years. Long gone, it seems, is the tempestuous enfant terrible whose Three Kings star, George Clooney, claimed to have been head-butted by Russell on set; whose screaming matches with Lily Tomlin during the filming of I Huckabees made him an unwitting YouTube sensation; and whose as-yet-unreleased, post-Huckabees feature, Nailed, saw its financing collapse with two days of shooting still to go (and lost one of its stars, James Caan, to another supposed Russell temper tantrum). That Russell seemed on the verge of a self-imposed term in “movie jail.” The one who re-emerged in 2010 with The Fighter was conspicuously a changed man: more modest, happy to be working, and navigating the awards-season gauntlet with surprising aplomb. What’s more, The Fighter was a major popular hit, and suddenly Russell was even being bandied about as a potential director for a high-profile video-game adaptation at Sony.

American Hustle

The movies were different, too, if not necessarily for the better. To these eyes, both The Fighter and the even more successful (commercially) Silver Linings felt, for all their respective merits, a bit too carefully engineered for mass adoration, with the acerbic, take-no-prisoners sensibility of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and Huckabees dialed down in favor of Oscar-baiting sentimentality. (This was especially true of Silver Linings, which after a bracing first reel seemed to lose any real interest in taking the Bradley Cooper character’s mental illness seriously.) But maybe Russell needed to make those movies to be in a position where he could do Hustle on his own exhilarating terms.  Whatever the case, it’s a feast of a movie—an uncorked entertainment in which every scene trembles with energy and actorly invention. Russell 2.0 is said to light his sets now in a way that allows the actors virtually 360 degrees of movement (with a special roving light on a microphone boom that can follow them wherever they go), and whether it’s that or simply the movie’s wholesale celebration of the art of performance, the actors in Hustle seem looser, freer, and more willing to take risks than they ever have before.

For all his metabolism-defying physical transformations (including for The Fighter), Bale has never quite had a role this vulnerable, this Brando-like in its emotional candor, while Cooper is a whirligig of comic energy, with an eggshell bravado that repeatedly cracks under pressure; he’s like an even more manic, self-deluding version of the eager-beaver police informant played by Treat Williams in Prince of the City. But if Lawrence has the most conspicuously scene-stealing part (capped by her already immortal, lip-synched rendition of “Live and Let Die”), the movie in many ways belongs to Adams, who is quietly spellbinding—and heartbreaking—as a woman slowly losing her sense of self as she tries to play both sides against the middle. In an extraordinary scene early in the film, Syd explains to Irv how she is going to take all of her pain and anger and use them to delve that much deeper into the role of Edith; in another, equally remarkable scene towards the end, she drops all her masks and stands helpless before the two men in her life. But by then, it has become impossible to say where role-playing ends and reality begins, or who’s really hustling who, in the infinite cosmic charade of life.