2013 // USA // David O. Russell // December 16, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Des Peres 14 Cine)
With the possible exception of his first feature, the indie incest comedy Spanking the Monkey, director David O. Russell’s films tend to prioritize vivid, quickly sketched characters and an arch attitude over naturalism and emotional depth. On the positive side, this often lends the director’s works a rough-edged, even profane ebullience that leaves an indelible impression, as in Three Kings’ laparoscopic insert shots of oozing bile and collapsing lungs, or The Fighter’s Greek chorus of pug ugly, foul-mouthed sisters. Unfortunately, this preference for cheeky crackle over authenticity can also create an atmosphere of cynical ephemerality in Russell’s films. The director’s characters look and talk like real people, but one can’t quite shake the sensation that one is watching actors playing roles. A cinema of heightened artificiality can be an end to itself—see the works of Baz Luhrman, Tarsem, and the Wachowski siblings—but in Russell’s hands it often feels like a means to a poignancy or profundity that the director never quite gets around to conveying.
Russell’s latest feature, American Hustle, finds modest success where the director’s films have often stumbled. On the one hand, the film functions primarily as tall drink of period razzle-dazzle, fueled by a cluster of memorably lurid performances and gaudy 1970s-80s design. At the same time, the film harbors an unexpectedly delicate sadness, evincing a sensitivity that has not been found in Russell’s work since Monkey. Hustle achieves this in part by not leaning too earnestly on its themes. The director and his performers are focused principally on delivering a character-driven, blackly comical tragedy decked out in disco era glitter and gold. That Hustle also manages to be a sorrowful little tale of American ambition, ineptitude, and shattered idealism at the dawn of the Reagan years... well, that’s just a gratifying bonus.
Hustle is based very loosely on the story of Abscam, the real-world FBI anti-corruption operation which utilized a convicted con man and a phony Arab sheikh to entrap and indict over thirty government officials, including six congressmen and a U.S. senator. However, the film’s screenplay by Russell and Eric Singer is concerned less with the minutiae of public bribery than with a cluster of compelling if broadly loathsome characters. At the center of the film are New York con artists and lovers Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), two souls who share a passion for quick-and-dirty financial scams and 1940s-50s jazz. Irving has a window glass business and a chain of dry cleaning shops that serve as a legitimate front for his cons, as well as an acid-tongued wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and stepson in the suburbs to whom he is hopelessly committed. (Exhibiting the sort of dejected self-awareness that characterizes his outlook, Irving admits in voiceover that his wife Rosalyn has snookered him into financial and emotional fidelity, if not sexual faithfulness, and has therefore conned the conman.) Sydney is a bit more of a chameleon: a perpetual identity-swapper who adopts an English accent and flashes flirty looks at her marks, luring them into the snares that her man has devised. “She was so smart!,” Irving enthuses, and while this is the gushing of a besotted man, it’s obvious that Sydney is a woman of large appetites, larger ambitions, and an almost compulsive need to keep moving up and away. In this, she recalls another Bale film, Public Enemies, where John Dillinger confessed that what he desired was “everything, right now.”
The FBI eventually catches wind of Irving and Sydney’s cons, and in short order the pair find themselves in adjoining interrogation rooms being sweated by splendidly permed agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie essentially blackmails the couple, offering immunity in exchange for their help in stinging public officials for corruption. Irving reluctantly accepts the deal, but his acquiescence creates a rift with Sydney, into which Richie rather effortlessly slides. In this way, the film sets up its dramatic nexus: the love triangle between Irving, Sydney, and Richie, and the ways in which their dysfunctional relationships threaten to devour the FBI operation. The wild card on the outside of this triad is Rosalyn, whose motormouth tendencies and tight grasp on Irving create a glaring potential for disaster in such a high-stakes scheme. (This is foreshadowed by not one but two kitchen fires that the culinarily inept and slightly wobbly Rosalyn triggers.)
The operation’s first target is the glad-handing, working man’s mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Once Carmine is hooked, he in turn begins to reel in various other members of the local, state, and federal government via a proposed economic redevelopment of Atlantic City. This is not sufficient for Richie, however, who yearns to be a rock star in the halls of the Bureau. That means that the scam escalates to luring in high-profile mafia targets, up to and including Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), lieutenant to notorious Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky. This proves to be all too much for Irving, who begins to panic at the possibility of losing his wife, son, and head if the mob unmasks their millionaire investor “sheikh” as a Puerto Rican FBI agent.
Russell keeps all of this fizzing along quite nicely, while adeptly balancing a plethora of tones and moods. Although the film sometimes seems to be snickering at its characters—That hair! Those outfits! That unawareness of the incipient 1980s!—it discovers a measure of pathos in their stymied dreams. Every significant characters is allowed to plead for the viewer’s sympathies at some point, just as everyone is ultimately revealed to be a short-sighted fool in one respect or another. Richie in particular evolves quite a bit over the course of the film, from a smooth-talking foil to an awkward romantic rival to a coked-up rogue agent to a pitiable but richly deserving fall guy. What is probably the saddest moment in whole film flicks by almost unnoticed: After fielding a phone call from Sydney regarding a late-night assignation, Richie insists to his mother that “I’m running the show, I’m the quarterback, and I’m not going to settle for no one.” On this beat, he casts a furtive glance at his poor fiancé, seated across the kitchen table. Ouch.
It is Renner’s pompadoured, gregarious mayor who receives the rawest deal when the FBI’s noose tightens. Carmine is an impassioned and idealistic public servant, beloved by his constituents and genuinely focused on the economic rebirth of his town. His only flaw seems to be his willingness to deal with casino mobsters to get what he wants for Camden. In short, he is a potential political balm for America’s post-Watergate malaise: a stand-up, take-charge guy who loves his town and his people. Unfortunately, Richie thinks nothing of throwing Carmine to the wolves in his pursuit of bigger fish, which leaves Irving feeling sick with guilt. Unlike Sydney, who has a jittery need to reinvent herself, Irving secretly longs to be a local Big Man, a respected member of the community just like Carmine. During a boozy, bittersweet night out on the town with their wives, Irving even seems to lose track of the fact that he is conning Carmine at all. For a moment, he forgets that he is a fraud.
Hustle draws heavily from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino for its themes and style, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scorsese homage, Boogie Nights. Russell is not at the level of either of those filmmakers, however, and Hustle’s worst traits exemplify the director’s irksome tendencies. These include a preference for cartoonish archetypes over characters, the loud declaration of ideas in place of simmering subtext, and a taste for pointless islands of weirdness. (A tossed-off moment where Rosalyn housecleans furiously while belting out “Live and Let Die” falls into the latter category.) Still, Hustle manages to be a genuinely sad film in spots, usually (and paradoxically) when the filmmaker and actors aren’t making a big hullabaloo about how sad everything is. Irving in particular evokes twinges of sorrowful sympathy. Despite his vanity and deceptions, he seems painfully aware that his life has been commandeered by the ego and greed of others.
While such psychological wrinkles provide the odd cerebral diversion, Hustle’s more visceral pleasures—the over-the-top performances, the design, the music, the queasy thrill of a con that is constantly threatening to unravel—are generally enough to keep the film afloat. One could pen an entire essay about Amy Adams’ morphing hairstyles and low-cut dresses, not to mention the curious magnetism of her translucent, blotchy skin. (As a fellow Person of Pale Persuasion, this writer is consistently taken by Adams’ willingness to appear naturally spotty on film rather than porcelain-perfect. More power to her.) None of this adds up to a great work of cinema, or even a particularly durable one, but American Hustle is still a pleasurable work of retro-themed pop entertainment. Moreover, there is something strangely gratifying about seeing Russell’s middlebrow and often frustrating auteurism finally discover a fitting vessel.