' ' Cinema Romantico: American Hustle

Monday, December 16, 2013

American Hustle

“American Hustle” opens with the following disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened.” This is partly meant to instantly counteract the extravagant amount of liberty-taking with the film’s factual roots and partly meant to simply get a laugh, a broad twist on a typical device, but I suspect there is something more to it. I suspect this unshackles the film from having to be an exposé, a commentary on having to Hustle for the American Dream, or some such, and instead frees it up to be a sprawling $50 million shaggy dog story.

Undoubtedly the film will invoke comparisons to Martin Scorsese with its frenetic camerawork, pop-heavy soundtrack and implementation of a rotary telephone for a character beatdown. It will also allow for citations of Paul Thomas Anderson, himself influenced by Grandmaster Marty, particularly 1997’s “Boogie Nights”, what when you consider “American Hustle” is set in the 70’s and makes liberal use of the era’s flamboyant costuming and disco tuneage. Some movies, however, do not aim to advance nor re-invent the form, merely to gather varying techniques of the form and wield them for the sake of sheer blinding entertainment. “American Hustle” is not The Story Of Abscam as much as it is David O. Russell’s Variety Hour – starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and assorted others!

Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, yet another character that allows for its actor to undergo a physical transformation, adding serious paunch and a delightfully ridiculous comb over. Partly a dry cleaning entrepreneur, but mostly a con man, Irving falls for/teams up with Sydney Prosser (Adams), so desperate for any other kind of life that she sees Irving not for the fake hair on his head but for the desire to deceive in his heart. It's love at first lie. These two set the stage, past and present, with voiceovers that continually trade off, two grifters reciting a ripping yarn over cocktails. Bale finds real pathos amidst all the put-ons and Adams is remarkable, the film's foremost emblem, conveying that her desperation to be someone else is, in fact, who she is.

Sydney adopts an English accent, re-casts herself "Lady Edith" of the isles and the two indulge in a prosperous scheme until undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) nabs them. If Sydney is determined to lead a different life then Richie is determined to move through the ranks at the speed of sound. So, he enlists them in a sting to go after Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and, in turn, crooked congressmen and, in turn, maybe, just maybe, the mob (represented in a particular walk-off cameo of inexpressible perfection).

Enter: The Wildcard, Rosalyn (Lawrence), wife of Irving and mother to the son he has adopted. Her initial appearance, after we have already seen Irving fall for and pledge devotion to Sydney, is a masterstroke, painting her as an afterthought, which is clearly how she views herself. He tries keeping her out of his crooked lifestyle, she worms her way in, repeatedly and hysterically. The role itself, from the screenplay by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, is killer, first and foremost, but Lawrence, who overcomes the comes-and-goes nature of her Jersey accent with manic energy, owns it. She threatens to blow up everything (the scam, the microwave) and threatens to steal the film entirely, if not for the fact her theatrical fervor is met head-on by the whole ensemble. (In keeping with the put-on-a-show nature of the whole film, I kind of wish Lawrence and Adams had swapped parts midstream. I so would have liked to see what each one could have done in the other role.)

As the untraditional crew lures Polito into its web, Richie reveals himself to be terrifically unstable and less intelligent than he thinks, falling for Sydney. She might be falling for him too, but she might be playing him, but then she might be doing both. Irving meanwhile forms a genuine affection for Polito and his family, and for Polito’s ideas to rebuild Atlantic City and, in the process, create new jobs and new wealth for New Jersey. This subplot, however, the political and social ramifications of the high-reaching undercover op, feels like an afterthought. It merely crops up around the edges, failing to provide the intended equilibrium to the Abscam shenanigans, and Russell repeatedly appears to purposely upstage tension and/or drama by playing for laughs. Thus, “American Hustle” ultimately fails to ring with any profound meaning, and yet I don't think it wants to.

There are so many little moments of absurd bliss and physical and verbal drollery inviting cuts from a theoretical editing standpoint that stay in because they are the point so much more than any “point”. As the stakes of the sting are raised, the more Richie yearns to elaborate on the ruse, to be a big shot, to rent out a whole suite at the Plaza, to be someone else.

One heightened moment goes so far as to find him dressing up like Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever" and squiring Sydney to the discoteque. He’s play-acting, and from the get-go we can tell that what Irving and Sydney (or is it Edith?) get off on more than the cash is the burlesque. The conclusion suggests our “heroes” have settled into their own skin, but it's telling that is the least convincing part of the picture. Everyone here just wants to lose themselves in the part, to put on a show, and what a hell of a show “American Hustle” is.


Candice Frederick said...

yeah...it completely misses its own point in its quest to be silly. it mocks itself a lot. i found it fun and entertaining, but has very little substance.

Derek Armstrong said...

You know what? I totally forgot that your post was where I read that it plays like a variety hour. I also totally forgot that I read your post and didn't comment on it. I only remembered when I went to read it now and said "Hey, this sounds familiar ..."

My problem is that I'm such a lover of Russell's films that I can't help compare it to the movies he's already made that I love more. If I'm looking at Russell's filmography, I'm probably going:

1. Flirting With Disaster
2. Three Kings
3. Silver Linings Playbook
4. Spanking the Monkey
5. American Hustle
6. The Fighter

7. I Heart Huckabees

Yeah, I *don't* heart Huckabees.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, I don't heart Huckabees either.

I admit, while I liked Flirting With Disaster, the only two in Russell's filmography I love are Silver Linings (which was my favorite movie last year) & American Hustle. There is just something old Hollywood about them, their desire to entertain and nothing else that I adore and connect to.