Judging from the trailers, I went into “American Hustle” expecting to see a sleazy tale of immorality perpetrated by colorfully-corrupt characters existing amongst a sea of 1970s, polyester suits and bad disco dancers.
However, what I wound up seeing was a fairly straight-forward tale involving damaged and complex individuals who seemed to gravitate towards the wrong decisions, no matter how hard they tried to merge onto the right path. It was like watching an exercise in futility performed by actors with New York City accents in an after school special for adults. Well, to be fair, the cast was at the top of its master class, which definitely helped elevate it to a higher level of after school special.
That being said, when you look past the top-notch performances and strip “American Hustle” down to its bare essence, what you have is a fairly common storyline mixed-in with stereotypical and archetypal characters and I expected a great deal more from a film that made almost every single critic’s “Top Ten Films of 2013″ list.
Now, I’m not saying that “American Hustle” is a bad film. In fact, if I was doing the stars thing, I’d probably give it a three out of four. It’s just not the film I expected. It was slightly less innovative than what I anticipated from writer/director David O. Russell.
Take Russell’s last film for example; the critically-lauded, Oscar-winning masterpiece “Silver Linings Playbook.” Although, the narrative was nowhere near as ambitious or eventful as it was in “American Hustle,” it was still all about the characters and the actors that played them. However, the characters in “Silver Linings Playbook” were one-of-a-kind messes who wore their problems like proud badges of honor – creatures that dripped with invention and spoke in unique tones and personalized frequencies. The destination was secondary, the primary goal was to document the journey… and it worked beautifully.
Even though “American Hustle” boasts a group of unique individuals who are far from conventional in any sense of the word, they seem like they’re too fictionalized. As the film opens, the phrase “Some of this actually happened,” flashes across the screen and we know we’re in for a wild (fictional) ride, a fact that Russell makes as abundantly clear as he possibly can.
Actually, the trip starts even earlier than the opening frames. Even the nostalgic Columbia Pictures logo and the grainy film stock added a Grindhouse feel to the proceedings. It’s as if Russell is shouting out, “This is the 1970s, dammit!” Just in case you didn’t get the message, the date is included in subtitle form on the bottom of the frame for us — April, 1978. Thank you, I was wondering if this film was set in the 70s or not.
Like I stated earlier, it’s not the plotline or the setting that makes “American Hustle” standout, it’s the performances. From the very start,
Christian Bale’s portrayal of anti-hero Irving Rosenfeld leaps off the screen and sits on your lap, which Irv would most certainly do… if it meant gaining your trust. The movie opens with Irv staring into a hotel vanity mirror, looking like an incomplete mess. His stark-white belly (he’s now the official king of losing/gaining weight for a movie role) protrudes over his belt line, while a Jewish star attached to a gold chain rests comfortably within a nest of curly, black chest hair. His balding head has a few wispy, leftover strands that he proceeds to work into a semi-comb-over. This does not look like a man that could even strike up an initial conversation with a woman, let alone get ONE to marry him and ANOTHER to be his lover/ business (if you can call it that) partner.
Nevertheless, as the seconds go by, Irv’s transformation occurs. A small tuft of hair that resembles a Brillo Pad is picked up off the countertop and meticulously glued to the bald spot on the top of his head. At first glance, the hairpiece looks more like an out-of-place island than a genuine toupee, but as he works his magic the island all but disappears and his masterpiece is complete. Like a woman who covers up a blemish with a little bit of foundation, Irv has fixed what he considers his flaw and becomes the complete package. What’s that saying involving the skill of a salesman? They can sell ice to an Eskimo or ketchup popsicles to a woman in white gloves (thank you “Tommy Boy”). Well, Irv can do both of these things and while he’s making the sale, his aforementioned business partner is slipping her hand in your pocket and swiping the cash right out of your wallet.
Which brings me to the reason that Irv is “putting on his hair” in the first place. He is involved in some sort of scam in which he’s supposed to encourage a New Jersey politician named Carmine Polito (brilliantly portrayed by Jeremy Renner) to leave with a briefcase full of money in order to fund the renovation of Atlantic City. However, Irv is not the mastermind behind this particular hustle. It’s actually the brainchild of curly-coiffed, wonderfully inept FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who was partially responsible for the recent bust of Irv and his partner’s illegal loan business and is now using the two of them (in trade of a lesser sentence) in an AbScam project involving said political parties, the Atlantic City renovation project, and a silent investor who’s supposed to be the sheik of some wealthy Arab country that’s putting up the necessary cash.
I know it sounds a tad bit complicated, but on the surface it’s all very simple. Irv and his partner made a living ripping people off, but they got
caught by Richie and the feds (good name for a band), and now they’re forced to participate in a hustle cooked-up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As Irv sees it, he’s doing all the work… without really getting paid for it. Plus, he’s more than a little perturbed at the fact that Richie is making the goo-goo eyes at his woman, which is a whole other story. Well, one of his women anyway.
See, Irv’s personal life is almost as complicated as his “professional” life. On one hand, he lives a normal life in the Long Island ‘burbs with Rosalyn — his dangerously clumsy, self-medicating wife who’s played by Jennifer Lawrence in a scenery-chomping, yet highly overrated performance. She has a son from a previous relationship, who Irv has adopted, which she hangs over his head like a bargaining chip whenever things go sour in their arrangement… which is quite often.
“I thought you were mysterious, but it turns out the “mysterious” was just depressed,” Irv yells in her direction during one of their numerous tiffs. However, no matter how bad things seemed to get, Rosalyn can always win back her husband using her physical, feminine wiles. All she needs to do is hit Irv with her seductive “come hither” look and he’s putty in her manipulative hands. “She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” he tells the audience in a narrative voiceover, “I was HER mark.”
Which brings me to Irv’s mystery “partner” — the wild card in the equation, if you will. The single most important aspect of Irv’s life, taking
precedence over his possessions, his adopted son, his wife, and even his bank account. Introducing Irv’s mistress/ business associate/ love of his life, con artist Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams in true gravity-defying, Oscar-worthy form).
Yeah, okay, Sydney might be a stripper-turned-con artist, but she’s Irv’s stripper-turned-con artist. Even going back to their first meeting, a chance encounter at a mutual friend’s pool party, there was always a deep-seeded connection. Right off the bat, Irv sees something unique in Syd. She is wearing a Duke Ellington charm bracelet during that first meeting and since Irv is a huge Duke Ellington fan, he suggests the two of them sneak off from the party and listen to some Duke Ellington music.
Much to Syd’s chagrin, this is not an elaborate ruse to get her alone in a room and have his way with her. Irv is actually interested in sitting down and enjoying some quality tunes with her. Immediately, Syd is drawn to Irv’s deep-rooted, complicated soul. Plus, she’s turned-on by his astronomic level of confidence. “He was who he was, he didn’t care,” Syd tells the audience in a voiceover as she stares at Irv slouched in a chair, potbelly protruding, with his garish glasses hiding his soulful eyes.
Their whirlwind romance turns into a partnership, as Syd reveals her secret weapon — Lady Edith Greensley. Who? Lady Edith Greensley is a character who Syd plays when she wants to pretend like she’s somebody else. She adopts a thick, yet refined, British accent and dresses with a conservative, yet stylish flair. Although, she mostly uses this character as a means to escape her mundane existence and get what she wants from men, she slyly reveals this side of her personality to Irv, who decides to use it to his business advantage.
See, Irv’s whole reason for being is to make money. It doesn’t matter if it’s legit or bullshit (pardon my French), it’s all the same to him. He inherits a window-making business from his father, after, at an early age, he saw how his old man struggled to make ends meet. That’s why he takes it upon himself to throw rocks though neighborhood windows, in order to drum up some business for his father. This streak of petty crime continues into his adult years, after he takes over his father’s business. Irv considers these crimes as “victimless,” as long as he isn’t the one getting victimized.
He supplemented his income by selling fraudulent art, as well as his involvement in a loan shark operation. This is where Syd… I mean, Lady
Edith comes in. High risk clients would come to Irv looking for a loan. Although, the bank wanted nothing to do with them, they weren’t exactly dangerous men, so there was no risk of physical harm coming to either of them. Lady Edith would then take over and wine and dine (and flirt with) the clients and tell them (in her British accent) that she has banking ties in London that can help them secure a loan and she only needs a small deposit to get things started. However, the loan would never come to fruition for the clients and their deposit was non-refundable. Which meant thousands of dollars at a time would go from the clients’ pockets to Irv’s and Syd’s pockets. They were so successful at this particular “hustle” that they even made their business partnership official, calling it “London Associates” after Lady Edith’s phony overseas connections.
Even though their business partnership was running smoothly, it was their personal life that could NEVER be made official, because of Irv’s unhappy marriage. He tries to play both sides of the fence and make both women happy, but after DiMaso and the FBI put the kibosh on London Associates, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep his business life away from his personal life… and to keep his mistress away from his wife.
As each layer of the story peels away, life becomes more and more complicated for Irv. Only, it’s a level of complication that anybody who’s seen films such as “Casino,” “Boogie Nights,” “Out of Sight,” “Jackie Brown,” “Burn After Reading,” (I could go on) will find very familiar. Crooked federal agents, crooked mobsters, crooked politicians, everybody’s crooked in this film. Even the so-called protagonists are far from wandering the straight-and-narrow path. To ask, “Who’s conning who?,” would be an additional exercise in futility. With the level of deception always running at such an tremendous level, nothing ever comes as a surprise. It makes most of the narrative exceptionally easy to telegraph, which doesn’t work in this film’s favor.
When it’s all said and done, a predictable movie can never be a great movie, at least in my eyes. Nevertheless, “American Hustle” tries its best
to reshape my opinion simply based on the complexity of its characters. It’s very rare that a movie can produce this number of Oscar-worthy performances. This is especially true for Bale, who gives one of the most complete and complex performances I’ve seen in any recent film. In fact, the last movie with so many great performances that comes to mind is “Silver Linings Playbook.” Go figure.
I’m sure this film will receive an Oscar nod for Best Picture, due to the sheer volume of positive critical response it’s garnered. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I’m wrong to criticize any aspect of “American Hustle” and if I do I have to work extra hard to explain myself. Which is essentially what I’m doing now, right?
Again, “American Hustle” is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. It just didn’t stretch MY imagination and wound up failing to meet my expectations based on everything I’d heard coming in.
And that’s the problem with an expectation… it’s the ultimate hustle.