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American Hustle Review: The Big Con Gets Personal
While sitting in a dim theater as the credits rolled, I realized something about American Hustle: this movie, all about a big con, is a con in and of itself. Thanks to its premise and somewhat misleading marketing, many will flock to American Hustle expecting an entertaining and bombastic con film in the same vein as Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job. They’ll wait to see the elaborate and creative scheming, the fun dynamic between characters, and the eventual payoff as our heroes pull off a heist against all odds.
But aside from a few moments of comedy, there’s not much fun to be had with American Hustle. There’s no intrigue to be taken from the planning stages of the heist, no tense moments a la the acrobatic vault scene in Ocean’s Eleven, and no gasps to be elicited from a big plot twist.
In all actuality, the big con merely serves as a backdrop in American Hustle, a film that focuses much more heavily on the characters involved, the moral implications of crime, the necessity of survival, and the idea that we perform cons of all types and sizes in our everyday lives.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) have been making a fair living feeding on the most desperate of society by running a sham loan business that falls apart once they’re ousted by undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Out of options, the two are forced into helping DiMaso accomplish his goal of roping in white collar criminals by setting up elaborate schemes meant to draw out the most corrupt politicians and businessmen in the country. By targeting the ambitious politican Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and his push to legalize gambling and rebuild Atlantic City, new players and elements introduce theselves into the job, and the threesome find themselves in a situation that begins to snowball out of control as the stakes raise themselves to an all-time high.
Like most of David O. Russell’s films, American Hustle is a character-driven experience. From Irving Rosenfeld to DiMaso’s FBI superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), each of the film’s personalities have a significant amount of development time dumped into them, allowing for each character to really build into an individual who feels unique and original in their own right no matter how small a role it may be. Pulling this off to such an effective degree with an ensemble cast as large as Hustle’s is no easy task, and the mere fact that Russell was able to do so really speaks to the quality of the dialogue and the writing.
However, the emphasis on character is both the film’s greatest strength and biggest flaw. Because Hustle so delicately handles the creation and development of its characters, it often forgets to strike a good balance between the personalities in the film and the actual momentum of the plot itself, leaving the main story feeling directionless and muddled at times. New elements such as mob connections and senators are introduced into the con up until the very end, some smaller developments and quirks of characters are never fully realized, and the weight of each is lost behind another as the audience is constantly kept playing catch-up with everything and what they mean to the overall plot. Somewhere deep down, American Hustle is a great film that stands among Russell’s greatest achievements, but it’s buried beneath thick layers of clumsy storytelling and frustrating pacing that hold it back from ever reaching such heights.
Not all is lost, though, as the really frustrating parts of Hustle are mostly limited to the plot and its poor balance with characterization. Despite this frustration, there’s still a great deal of nuance and poignant thematic exploration that really makes many key moments of American Hustle shine.
Hustle’s main theme is the idea of survival and the elaborate lengths we all go to in order to obtain security. Each of the characters in the film are manipulative and dangerous in their own ways, both as cogs working within the con itself and as individuals seeking to find a happier outcome for themselves. The film is at its best when we see the characters wrestle both with their devious and often dishonest means of securing survival, all while dealing with the moral implications of having to “fake it” all the time.
Probably the main reason this works so well is due largely in part to the masterful performances delivered by the cast members themselves. Cooper plays a great DiMaso, essentially a Captain Ahab-like character whose ambition to prove himself by bringing down the biggest criminals in the country proves to be the Moby Dick that eventually drives him mad. Bale’s Rosenfeld is compelling and believable as he begins to question a lifetime of lies and wrestles with the fact that his burgeoning friendship with Carmine Polito is all but doomed, and even Renner portrays a great and honest politician in Polito whose eventual discovery of unknowingly participating in a major scheme pays off in a heartbreakingly believable way toward the end.
It’s the female leads, however, that really carry the film. Adam’s Prosser is by far the most complex character in the entire ensemble, a woman so deeply conflicted with her actions and so desperate for acceptance and normalcy that she eventually unwinds, attempting to do away with the “bullsh*t” and just exist as herself. Adam’s portrayal is convincing, relatable, and one of her best performances to date.
Jennifer Lawrence also shines as the off-putting Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s near-manaical wife who is just as unhinged as she is manipulative. The most entertaining scenes of Hustle are the ones including Rosalyn, thanks to her unpredictability and brash approach to handling virtually every situation in her life. Despite the sheer entertainment value of watching her character engage the others, however, it’s not hard to pick up on the fact that Rosalyn is a deeply troubled individual who is so afraid of losing security and being alone that she’s willing to use her son as leverage and stay in a toxic relationship in order to maintain her way of life. This aspect of her character is almost tragic, and I sometimes found it a bit disturbing that we were meant to laugh at this woman who resorted to extremes in order to maintain her own sense of “survival”.
But that’s the beauty of Hustle: you never really feel comfortable watching it, because none of the characters are ever really comfortable with the predicament they’re in. Dialogue is so well nuanced and delivered that it feels natural, like something you’d overhear at a restaurant or within a circle of friends. No, we don’t revel in the ingenious schemes of the con artists here, but the real action takes place whenever we watch characters interact with each other on screen and hear what they have to say.
American Hustle’s visuals are equally as powerful as its performances and dialogue. Being that it is set in the 1970s, a lot of detail and care went in to constructing the sets and costumes of the characters in order to lend the film an air of authenticity and make it reflect the essence of the time. Not as much care is taken to introduce some of the vernacular native to that time period, however, and the mere fact that many of the character’s quirks and styles of speech don’t include or acknowledge the period in which it was set. No, I don’t expect for the characters to be speaking in jive, but a few cultural references of the time and the use of “science oven” to describe a microwave does not authentic dialogue make.
But the main pull of American Hustle is not merely to come and enjoy the time in which the film is set. It’s to witness the engaging dynamic between characters and to draw your own conclusions about the themes the film presents. This is a movie about a con and the con artists involved, but you won’t enjoy watching it for conventional reasons. At times, it’s depressing, dark, deeply personal, and relevatory, as entertaining as it is enigmatic. While the plot may meander a bit and never really build into anything bigger than a mediocre con, it’s the character interactions and the themes explored through each of the motivations and actions of the individuals that really makes American Hustle a powerful work of film. It doesn’t necessary rise to the same heights as some of Russell’s more recent greats in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but American Hustle still holds its own as a fascinating character study of con artists and the morally grey areas in which we all exist.