Distorting the ‘American’ Dream

“American Hustle” began as a script by writer and producer Eric Singer originally titled “American Bulls–t.” What follows is a screwball comedy in which love, corruption, the power of intention and selling lies run helter-skelter in an America, and where anarchic confidence games are the sole keys to coming out on top. And the result is wickedly entertaining.

Writer and director David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) bases his story on the events of ABSCAM, a bizarrely intricate post-Watergate FBI sting operation tasked with ensnaring members of the U.S. government for corruption. The operation involved FBI agents working with a convicted conman to impersonate wealthy Arab sheiks eager to invest in Atlantic City’s casino industry. (Complicated, I know.) The film is historical fiction with a satiric “Goodfellas” twist. Famous for romps romping with crazy, unhinged characters unhappily married to their outrageous stories, Russell and his masterful cast essentially con the audience into relishing the convoluted plot—and falling utterly in love with the bad guys.

Irving Rosenfeld from the Bronx, played by Batman – er, Christian Bale – serves as the pot-bellied, velvet-clad trickster god of America’s bottom-feeders and the hero of the ensemble cast. He’s a bit awkward and odd-looking, but his street-savvy confidence and his crook’s charisma make him lovable anyway.

When we meet Irving, he’s arranging a highly elaborate comb-over to shield his shiny eggshell with a virtuosity befitting his devil-in-the-details style of surviving.  Confidence games are his means of keeping his neck out of the water. After guaranteeing loans to debtors down on their knees, he collects his fee of $5,000 from each of his carefully-selected marks and disappears, giving them nothing.

At a pool party, Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, “The Fighter”), a woman who moves from Albuquerque, N.M. to New York to find a life of boldness, adventure and luxury. They immediately fall for each other, bonding over their love of Duke Ellington’s sultry “Jeep’s Blues.” Irving comes clean to her about his duplicitous career, and she walks away, only to turn around again to present herself as her British alter-ego Lady Edith Greensley with “royal London banking connections.” Together they embark on a new phony loan business venture by the name of London Associates, inspired by Sydney’s creation. Never mind that Irving has an adopted son and a manic-depressive wife named Rosalyn at home, played by Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games”).

FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, “The Hangover”) soon busts Sydney and Irving’s operation. Richie, hungry for a career of respect, prestige and fame, strikes a deal with Irving: get the feds four conmen, and he and Edith walk free.

Unfortunately for Irving and Sydney, Richie’s thirst for power warps the original plan into a high-stakes, highly dangerous ploy to entrap corrupt members of Congress, the pure-hearted mayor of Camden, N.J. and the East Coast mob.

This film’s sweep of Oscar nominations is no huge puzzlement. “American Hustle” really shines thanks to the stellar depictions of each complex, multifaceted character and their frenetic natures.

Bale is absolutely refreshing and joyful as something outside his usual oeuvre of gritty and grumpy archetypes brutally chiseled out of marble. As usual, he maniacally and physically commits to the role (à la De Niro in “Raging Bull”), but he does it here with a newfound brilliance and effervescence. Everything from the subtlest facial cues down to his warm, conversational voice-overs convinces the audience of this richly complex, deeply human man for whom Sydney falls head over heels. One will easily sympathize and chuckle at his Brooklyn-brand of contempt for the human race. One will wince with Sydney when he falls to his knees, finally crippled by the destruction of his closest relationships and the imminent failure of his master plan.

Everything Adams touches turns into pure gold. She seems to play two separate women, but that is not the case. She plays Sydney Prosser, who plays Lady Edith Greensley (“I created her because I needed her to survive,” she says). The audience feels Edith’s fear of losing love as she veers between her constructed identity and her real self in the space of a breath. In an emotional confrontation with Irving, she loses her vulnerable, real American accent, hoping to protect herself with her alter-ego’s British accent—and reaffirming all she has learned from Irving on the art of survival: “The key to people is what they believe and what they want to believe. So I want to believe that we were real.”

Cooper plays his character’s lust for power to full, animalistic effect. He humbly complements Adams’s and Bale’s two inspiring performances; his bumbling eagerness to join Irving’s criminal acting troupe is the source of many perilous and hilarious mistakes in the film.

Lawrence continuously steals the scene as Rosalyn, the poisonous woman desperate to keep her marriage to Irving. She masquerades as an innocent, but constantly threatens to set fire to the entire plot.

But beyond the amusing character studies and the intricate cons, the film’s narrative ultimately questions the role of performance in American society. A life of mere existence is simply unacceptable to these characters. For them, the only escape from a meager existence is to perform and simulate their desired lives. As a curly-haired, disco-suited “Miami Vice” imitation, Richie seizes the prodigious world of the ABSCAM operation as an escape from his droll domestic life with a nagging mother, a dirty fish tank and a dog-faced fiancé. Irving takes advantage of people, capitalizing coldly on desperation and naivety. But he is forced to question the morality of his cons when he forms a meaningful friendship with his target.

The conman and heist genres have always been about finding pure escapism and fantasy at the cinema. But “American Hustle” is a highly intelligent screwball about the problems that arise when its characters are seduced by these genre conventions themselves. The triumphant ones find their way out of the cinematic adventure for the better. The damned remain unwilling to let go of the fantasy.

“American Hustle” solidified director David O. Russell’s place as Martin Scorsese’s apparent heir. This winter pitted screwball grandfather against screwball grand-nephew with “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In this feud, the grand-nephew comes out on top. Stories of the human condition transcend an endless continuum of spectacle. And at its core, “American Hustle” is a compelling and refreshing story of what people do to survive in the world.

— By Malika Gumpangkum 

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