I hate the culture of the 1970's. I hate the clothes, the hair, the music, and the general attitude that came from most pop culture at the time (Jaws and Star Wars excluded). That is one of the reasons I was trepidatious about David O. Russell's American Hustle, a period drama set in Disco Decade. I was worried that I would be so distracted by my dislike that I would have a horrible time.
I was very happy to be wrong.
American Hustle is the story of the FBI Abscam sting. Russell very wisely puts the note "Some of this actually happened," before the movie beings. This allows him a lot more liberty to play around with the characters and facts to create a good dramatic story without nitpicking the historical details. The plot revolves around Irving Rosenfeld (a fantastic Christian Bale), a middle-aged, overweight urban dry-cleaning entrepreneur who also has a side business of con man. Irving falls in love with the street-wise-city-girl-from-a-small-town-wanting-more-out-of-life Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
Bale and Adams have great chemistry, so that even as they run scams together, you kind of root for them. Russell wisely spends time getting you invested in the relationship because, when you get down to it, the two are fairly immoral in their lying scams. But then they get caught by FBI Agent Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) and are forced to use their skills to help set up crooked politicians for corruption stings. This pulls the couple into a world of danger and desperation that pulls them further apart and closer to harm.
The best thing about American Hustle is the cast. Some of the best performances I've seen this year come from this movie. Bale is at his best here as Rosenfeld. He completely takes on the persona of a low-rent con man, with all of the tacky trappings. If that had been all to his performance, that wouldn't be much. But Bale takes us past that exterior as Rosenfeld sinks into the quicksand around him. You can see his desperation as he starts running out of choices and all the ones he has left are bad. In the second half of the movie, he really grabs you through his eyes with every meaningful, potent glance.
Amy Adams is also fantastic. Her Sydney takes on a British persona "Lady Edith Greensley," and she slips in and out her accent throughout the film. At first I thought this was a flub, but then I realized what Adams was doing. Her character was so caught up in her lies that she started losing track of who she was. As her relationship strains with Rosenfeld, her mutual attraction with DiMasso grows, but you can never tell if is real or a hustle. Cooper is also perfect in his role. I really didn't care for him in Russell's Silver Linings Playbook from last year. I thought he was too full of himself and arrogant. But this works perfectly for his Agent DiMasso, who wants to take down the "bad guys" but he also wants all the fame and glory that goes along with it. And you can tell that he wants to be as good at hustling as Rosenfeld. Cooper brings just the right amount of humor and danger and vanity to the part.
Two more performances of note are Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. Lawrence plays a put-upon, alcoholic house wife. She is as infuriating as she is vulnerable, which makes for a wonderfully conflicted combination. Speaking of conflicted, Renner's Mayor Polito is the primary target and tool of Abscam. But he comes off not as a greedy slime-ball, but a man willing to bend the rules for the good of a city about which he genuinely cares. He develops a real affection for Rosenfeld, and Bale shows how this tears him apart inside.
The script is pretty tight and moves along at a good clip adding intensity and complexity as it goes. Going back to my note on the 1970's, Russell transports you to that era and he makes it fascinating without being kitsch or glamourous. I particularly love how he lets you in the back door to see the characters with curlers in their hair or gluing their comb-overs to show you how their quaffs were ridiculous facades. He also uses the music from the time effectively not only for nostalgia but for emotional effect. I still can't get Elton John's "Goodbye, Yellowbrick Road" out of my head since I saw the movie, as Russell used in a visually beautiful and emotionally arresting scene in the middle of the film.
My biggest critique of the film is how it treats the women. I'm not prudish if art wants to explore the beauty of the female form. But the camera doesn't just linger on its female leads, it leers. I understand that the women characters use their sexuality as part of their hustle, but you can film a woman being sexy and womanly without her being (for lack of a better word) slutty. Adams' outfits are so revealing that she may as well be naked for much of movie. And this isn't simply a reflection of 70's apparel. Russell objectifies her and Lawrence even as the actresses give fantastic performances. If you are someone who is particularly susceptible to lustful temptations from movies, I would avoid this film.
The challenge of a film like this is the moral one. Movies about con artists present a moral quandary. Like Catch Me If You Can, we are amused and impressed by the main characters ability to hustle. This is partly, I think, because a part of us envies their skill to manipulate others. We want to be slicker and smarter than everyone in the room. This is a moral danger, because if the movie gets you to root too much for the humbug, it is seducing you into accepting deception as morally good. Perhaps I am being too heady here, but I think that this can be a real problem with movies like this.
In addition, all of the characters are broken in their morals in some way. Whether they lack virtue in pride, avarice, lust, wrath, envy, sloth, or gluttony, there are no saintly people in this film (except for maybe Louis CK in small but wonderfully done part). This is not in and of itself a problem if, as in movies like The Godfather, it shows how a life of sin catches up with you.
So how does American Hustle approach this problem? I can't say too much without giving away the ending. But I will say that most of the bad choices that people make have bad consequences. Lies and deception leads not to freedom and power, but deeper lies and further deception until you are lost in an invisible labyrinth of untruths. And the characters begin to realize that this life of lies is destined for destruction. For that reason, I have less of a problem with the moral faults presented in American Hustle (with the exception that marital infidelity is normalized).
American Hustle is morally complicated, but it is very well made.
3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.