It took me a while to get around to seeing David O. Russell’s Academy Award nominated film American Hustle. I hesitated because the ad campaign looked like the film would just be another “let’s laugh at 70s hairstyles” movie and I just find that silly and overdone. I knew I would eventually see it, and that day came a few days ago when I went to the Chatham Orpheum Theater to check it out.
It begins with Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfeld creating the illusion of a full head of hair with a very elaborate arrangement of his own hair combed over a rug, resulting in a hairstyle that is neither pleasing to the eye nor an accurate recreation of anyone’s natural hair. At first, this sequence seems to confirm my initial concerns that American Hustle was nothing more than a comic sendup of 1970s era fashion, but over time, it reveals itself to be an element of the film’s form that, combined with other equally small elements, points to its overarching theme. As Irving’s partner Edith Greensleeves (Amy Adams) puts it, “people believe what they want to believe.” And Iriving’s attempt at having hair both helps him believe what he wants to believe–that he is in control–and gives the impression of confidence to the marks he and Edith will be conning.
Irving and Edith, who are lovers, partner in a scam to get phony loans for desperate people. In exchange for $5,000, the pair promise to use Edith’s London banking connections to get each mark $50,000 to pay off nefarious existing debts. Since everyone involved is doing something illegal, the scam works, at least for a little while. One day, Edith brings in a propsective customer, Richie (Bradley Cooper) who seems suspicious to Irving. As it turns out, he is in fact an FBI agent and Edith is arrested. In order to get her out of prison, Irving and Edith must pledge to work for the FBI and nab four other criminals. But their commitment turns into something much bigger when Richie’s ego gets in the way and he sets his sights higher –much higher. Amid all of this, Richie and Edith begin an affair, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (played marvelously by Jennifer Lawrence) becomes a liability, Richie’s ambitions lead to foolish mistakes, and mafia boss Victor Tellegio (Robert DeNiro, of course, in an uncredited performance) puts Irving way out of his small-time criminal league. The only thing left to do is for everyone to try to outsmart everyone else, and I found that final 25 -30 minutes of the film quite satisfying.
The performances in American Hustle are excellent. Bale’s portrayal of the Bronx-born Irving struck this native New Yorker as spot-on and his ability to garner our sympathies while everyone around him appears morally bankrupt is a credit to the script as well as to Bale, whose character is actually quite immoral. Lawrence is perhaps the most underrated member of the cast with her manipulative Rosalyn who is smart, but not as smart as she thinks, ultimately. Her lines are hilarious, but they are delivered with great sincerity.
Although the early character development depends a lot (perhaps too much) on verbal narration describing Edith’s and Irving’s backgrounds, the script is very good and actually quite funny, even as its greater concerns with moral ambiguity run deep. In addition, the film is edited so well that you barely notice it (the highest compliment for an editor) until after the movie’s over and you replay it in your mind. With 10 Oscar nominations, certainly, its a strong contender for Best Film Editing, Best Actor (Bale), Best Supporting Actress (Lawrence), and Best Original Screenplay (director Russell and Eric Singer).
Before the first sequence I described above, there is a title that says, “Some of this actually happened.” Elements of the plot are based on the real-life Abscam scandal that featured fake Arab sheikhs, FBI entrapment tactics, and ultimately a number of arrests, but according to those in the know, much of this story is pure fiction. This opening title gives us fair warning, so I am not particularly concerned with whether or not these exact characters existed or which scenes, if any, are “authentic.” For me, American Hustle takes an essential lesson of the real Abscam case and explores the human dimensions of it. American Hustle is about entrapment, the fallacy of believing in good versus evil, and the idea that the desire to be smarter than everyone else is a human weakness that afflicts FBI agents as well as con men, and everyone in between.
Morality is so often skewed to meet our own desires.
I won’t spoil it for the few out there who have not yet seen it, but no matter how you slice it, in the end, the question remains: when entrapment is used as a law enforcement tactic, who is more guilty, those on the “right” side of the law, or those who’ve been entrapped? While the real life conman from the Abscam scandal, Mel Weinberg, was undoubtedly a piece of work who probably doesn’t deserve much sympathy, the hero of American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld struggles with his conscience as he tries to maintain control of a situation he did not create. He is a guilty man, on a lot of counts, but he’s still a human being and this movie’s great accomplishment is its ability to put that on the screen. Factual inaccuracies are silly to debate in a fiction film. What comes through here is a stronger truth that transcends the nitty gritty of factual details.
Oscar Thoughts: American Hustle is nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It’s my pick for Best Film Editing (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten)