Players and Pawns, Can You Tell Which?
“Some of this actually happened,” reads a title card at the beginning of American Hustle, David O. Russell’s latest glittered and flamboyant non-fictional slice of life. It’s such a liberating sentence for a director to precede the events of a movie. “Yes, some of these things happened, but I won’t tell you which or how many. And yes, some of these things did actually happen, but of course you still don’t really know which ones.” What an exciting prospect for a movie based on deceit and scams, and one so deliciously set in an era of curly hairdos and the disco ball’s entrancing spin. This may have been inspired by true events, but Russell wouldn’t ever tell you that. He’s not concerned with that. Why would he confine himself to critics of historical accuracy in an age of excess? He’d rather hustle us.
So would his leading man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who opens the film meticulously and charismatically fixing his thin and scattered brown hair. It’s an ornately puzzled comb-over, so fragile and greasy. Shortly after each strand has been carefully placed, someone intentionally frazzles and exposes the balding cover-up and it’s shattering. It’s an effective first scene, introducing us to a man so dedicated to illusion and the craft of deception. His popularity reached riveting heights during the 1978 Abscam F.B.I. scandal that the movie is based off, in which falsified money wiring and a fake sheik helped entrap several corrupt politicians.
Irving, as the center of this operation, though a bit younger and more agile, loosely embodies the real Bronx-bred Mel Weinberg, still carrying around his potbelly and large orange lenses. “He was who he was, and he didn’t care,” muses his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams), testifying to the seemingly transcendent power both money and charisma wield over physical appearance and attraction. They meet at a pool party and bond over Duke Ellington and clothing. He narrates his humorous, con-artist beginning childhood to her, and she reciprocates, a contraption that evokes Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas and continues doing so in its domestic, 1970s gender-role driven melodrama.
Irving has made a living on lies. As a kid he threw rocks in store windows to help his glass business. As an adult he runs a dry cleaner to front for his sales of fraudulent art and fake loans for which he collects $5,000 down payments. He feeds off the desperate and needy and calls their shady financial indulgences their own comeuppance. He invites Sydney, a luminous Barbie with brains, into this world. She walks out. Then she plays him. Sydney reintroduces herself to him as Lady Edith Greensleeve, an English-accented banker with connections in Britain. Irving finds his working partner and soul mate.
Once the proper pasts and current connections are established, Russell and co-writer Eric Singer begin the chaos, involving undercover F.B.I. agent and perm-headed Richie DiMaso (a snappy, manic Bradley Cooper), who splits up the loan laundering and then bargains the racketeering couple into his self-induced large-scale con. Soon we meet the prime target, an honest New Jersey politician and former Camden mayor Carmine Polito (a great Jeremy Renner) in need of substantial spending money to rebuild his vision of Atlantic City’s boardwalk. Ruffling the feathers beneath these backside dealings is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), pent up in their Long Island residence with a neglected son.
There is an ease and simplicity though in Russell’s transitions from one disparate player to the next. It’s due in large part to the cohesiveness and concision of his storytelling devices. Russell right now is the master of the montage. He’s not particularly interested in the specifics of negotiations or the plausibility of his historical recreations. He’s emitting feelings here, enamored with relationships and linking them to period soundtracks from Electric Light Orchestra to America and Elton John. The camera swerves and whooshes in, captures the ephemeral emotion and dissects the boys’ power plays just as much as the girls’.
This is a sexy movie, and these are beautiful people doing things only beautiful people can get away with. It has the dramatic arc of last year’s Argo but this is not a Ben Affleck movie where subtleties are hidden beneath bushy beards. Here, Amy Adams’s Sydney has a new hairdo in every scene while managing to keep the same amount of visible cleavage underneath each dress. Richie, as a claustrophobic investigator, spends more time on his curls than with his aging mother and fiancée, who confront him at a Saturday Night Fever inspired dinner table scene. He has the intangible dream, the kind that Irving feasted upon his former clients, the kind that overlooks reality for the one that’s desired. For Richie, it’s ascending the corporate ladder. It’s making a splash like the one he’s schemed. His boss (Louis C.K.) disapproves and suggests he’s biting off more than he can chew.
A lot of people are. Irving learns the hard way stretching his affairs between Sydney and his obsessive wife. Rosalyn, donning a mountain of blonde hair and nail polish is unapologetically and completely unfiltered. She uses her husband’s negligence as leverage to scream her wild convictions and drunken insults. Lawrence effectively channels Lorraine Bracco’s Karen Hill, fumbling around double dates with Irving, Carmine, and his wife, pushing the boundaries between her perceived naiveté and secretive, though skewed grasp of her husband’s reality. She wouldn’t dare be Diane Keaton in The Godfather. She’d bust down that closing wooden door.
But American Hustle doesn’t scrape the emotional and violent complexities of that decade’s mob life. Skepticism and deception runs rampant in this post-Vietnam, Watergate landscape. So, too, does comedy. Russell is a director who is more willing to let his actors make a scene than his camera and each one has its joys. Like the whirlwind bickering on game day in the Silver Linings Solitano household, or the fidgety mother and sisters girlfriend interview in The Fighter, Russell again scatters his signature punchy and pithy dialogue. Cooper seems to embrace this type of back and forth, satisfying his anxiously driven character. Bale, a Russell veteran who has slimmed down and now bloated out, plays his fidgety straight man.
Even in this superficially and musically extravagant picture, there is also some heart, and not just the kind boiled in possessive, romantic relationships. Those are crucial here, too, and undercut much of the operational schematics. But as everything for Irving and Sydney hinges on this final con, so does everything for Carmine, the principled, family man ensnared into these dubious dealings. At certain points, Irving almost breaks down and the mask, at once so firmly placed starts to slip down his face. Sydney is there to push it back up. The charade must go on, for everyone’s sake.