“Who’s the master? The painter, or the forger?”
The buildup of David O. Russell’s American Hustle is much more intriguing and satisfying than its payoff, which the film treats like an afterthought, even though the stakes are undeniably high – $2 million (in 1980 money, mind you) in federally-funded bait that may or may not have been, ahem, misplaced, the careers and reputations of ambitious FBI agents and several crooked congressmen, and the tenuous fates of the hustlers themselves. Everything pivots on the presumably predictable human behavior that occurs, late in the game, in a shady lawyer’s office. Our trio of leads – a pair of grifter soul mates forced to cooperate with the feds or face serious jail time, and their FBI handler, a self-possessed climber in near constant danger of exceeding his depth – work together and push forward without ever fully trusting the plan, or one another. They have no choice, having long since run out of options. A movie like this requires a twist, of course, and Hustle’s is sly enough, humorous and largely satisfying, appropriate for a movie that cons its way into the audience’s good graces well before the short term game is ever laid out onscreen. American Hustle’s first half has an intoxicating rush to it, and the sense of real discovery, but it soon gets mired in and struggles to overcome a plot neither well enough considered nor explained. I met its climax with little more than a smile and a shrug. I had fun, but felt something significant had been lost in favor of nothing in particular.
Movies about con artists are, first and foremost, stories of specific relationships, most often the one between player and mark. David Mamet’s paradigm-shifting House of Games defined Joe Mantegna’s magnetic gambler as nebulous trouble early on but not necessarily a con man, keeping his character enigmatic. Stephen Frears’ excellent ‘90s noir The Grifters featured John Cusack as a small time scam runner who chafed under pressure as the unwitting focal point in a twisted love triangle involving his unscrupulous girlfriend and battle-hardened mother. In Ridley Scott’s terrific Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage is introduced as a successful con man, albeit somewhat cracked, making the degree to which he is eventually exposed resonate all the more. These disparate approaches work because the audience is given a proxy through which to see the scam, to participate, and, presumably, live to tell the tale. In House of Games, the audience surrogate is exclusively psychiatrist Lindsay Crouse, the consummate good-intentioned rube, whose inexperience and pliability makes Mantegna’s work easier and more insidious. The Grifters asks its audience to identify most with Cusack as he struggles to keep his head above water with the mob closing in and tenacious female ankle weights dragging him down. Matchstick Men follows Mamet’s example more closely, but flips the script by making its “rube” a con man himself, who is eventually laid low by his own human frailties. In a moment of weakness, he purposely forgets how the game is played, and pays for it.
American Hustle is, all told, a pretty great movie about con artists, but not a great movie about a con. The film lives and dies on the strength of its characters, who are vibrant and formidable. It has information to impart, but only enough to frame the scene, not paint it, and in terms of pure, diabolical plotting, it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the films referenced above. Taken in their superior company, though, it does chart an unexpected fourth way forward. Its central relationship checks almost every box on the list, and brazenly presents as audience surrogates a pair of lovers – a broken down but scrappy Christian Bale and a positively luminous Amy Adams – who seem, with little pretext or complication, pretty much meant to be together. I’ve grown so weary of the theatrical concept of “love at first sight” that I now subconsciously rebel against it, but as Russell’s camera circles the two on a dance floor while they sing Jack Jones’ “I’ve Got Your Number” to each other, they seem positively alight with the glow of whirlwind romance, all shining eyes and beaming smiles and easy, casual, physical contact, and I found myself convinced. We see them meet and we see them flirt, then we see them fall effortlessly – authentically, we believe – in love. We see them work, and in their perfectly complimented, non-sanctioned day jobs – because they are, after all, con artists – we see them have a level of fun that would surely be illegal had polite society not already deemed it so, and as a result we see them fall ever deeper in love. In many ways, it’s a seduction, but perpetrated by a clever filmmaker on his viewer.
Russell gambles that we’ll care enough about his protagonists that we won’t much mind that his confidence game – based loosely on the sprawling ABSCAM scandal of the early ‘80s – is lacking. With Irving and Sydney’s idyll so memorably established and solidified, he sets to work introducing obstacles. The first threat comes with the reveal of Irving’s erratic wife, Rosalyn – an admirably unrestrained Jennifer Lawrence, channeling New Jersey housewife clichés that had, by the early 1980s, not yet had a chance to become commonplace. Despite the legal advantage that comes with actually being his wife, Rosalyn is in essence Irving’s “other woman”, and he pines for a way to extricate himself from her dim but determined grasp without losing his relationship with her biological son, whom he adores and wants to adopt. Looming much larger, however, is Bradley Cooper’s bland, blunt, overcompensating FBI agent Richie DiMaso, whose utter self-confidence seems, at best, misplaced and, at worst, lethal to any number of potential accidental targets. The couple has been operating thus far with multiple irons in the fire, either selling exquisite but fake art pieces to wealthy clients or financing doomed, fraudulent loans but pocketing the “non-refundable” fee. DiMaso backs them into a corner where they must cooperate with the FBI by helping them land bigger fish or else go to prison. When a brokered meeting with a corruptible but well-intentioned New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner, quivering and forthright) goes south but is salvaged by Irving’s interpersonal skills, the con man and the mark strike up an unlikely but believable friendship. Meanwhile, DiMaso decides to follow the money, staked by a legendary but fictitious Arab shiek and earmarked for urban renewal (however tainted), to potentially much larger game roaming the halls of Congress.
From this premise, the second half of the film unspools, and it is kind of a mess, filled to the brim with both marvelous individual moments – a tense “sit down” that is a barely disguised interview with deadly serious mob interests; the explosive first encounter between Sydney and Rosalyn, both interested in marking shared territory; the impromptu date between Richie and Sydney, equally spurned and resentful, who go out dancing with repercussions on their minds – and fascinating questions which hang in the air long enough to be posed but are just as quickly shuffled aside in favor of the film’s mountain of plot. Chief among them for me was: where exactly do Sydney’s loyalties lie, and are they negotiable? Viewers have believed up to this point that she truly loves Irving because the film has made them believe it, but the film only wields any power because of Sydney herself, who has, in turn, largely been playing “Edith”, the charming British “roper” from Irving’s long-running scams. Playing both characters, Amy Adams is, frankly, scary good. Her Sydney/Edith is incredibly resourceful, effortlessly ingratiating and, when cornered, unpredictable. As the couple is forced ever deeper into the FBI’s barely contained scheme, she levels with Irving that, as part of the game, she will necessarily build a romantic relationship with Richie in plain sight, and make it “very, very convincing”. Later on, when she may or may not have already crossed a line, Sydney is still hurt enough to reproach Irving. “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything. Okay? I’m not Rosalyn. I’m not going to take that shit.” Sydney plays Edith so well for so long that, at a moment late in the movie, I was shocked to be reminded I’d forgotten her real name. Is the con Edith runs on the men in her life part of a larger con on the audience? Who knows at what point Edith ends and Sydney really begins?
It’s to Adams’ credit that such questions burned in me for so long, and to the film’s detriment that it settles for half-answers and perfunctory reveals instead. The more it tangles itself in plot, the more American Hustle sacrifices its considerable appeal. That the movie is, at times, still wildly successful is a tribute to the performances across the board (shout out to comedian Louis C.K. as Richie’s browbeaten, exasperated boss) and also to Russell’s direction, which wades waist deep into its tricky period setting, and crafts some truly transcendent visual moments, none sweeter or sexier than an elliptical early sequence where the two lovers wordlessly flirt amongst a snow drift of bagged clothes at a dry cleaners. Christian Bale’s commitment to physical transformation in order to nail a part is by now well known. His Irving initially seems like overkill, balding, paunchy and almost distractingly ramshackle, sporting what Adams’ narration terms “an elaborate comb over”, but Bale accesses the yearning and unease at his core and creates a three-dimensional character out of what other actors might rightly see as an elaborate excuse to dress up. Adams’ Sydney, by comparison, is so put together and self-assured that she seems light years out of his league, yet gets right down to his level in shocking short order. Irving’s growing relationship with the mayor he is being forced to betray provides the movie with a shot of true pathos, and Bale and Renner play both sides with stinging honesty. With his permed hair and primordial disco clothing, Richie cuts a ridiculous figure, but Cooper makes the FBI lead relatable, contrasting the ever-increasing charge he receives the longer he associates with criminal elements with the nervous tension he feels as his ever deepening scheme threatens to drown him.
I’m consistently amused by the way FX’s winning new crime anthology Fargo (like the 1996 Coen Brothers classic it’s inspired by) announces at the beginning of each episode that it is based on a true story. This ploy is older than the hills, an attention-grabbing attempt to further enrich in the viewer’s imagination what is already going to be a sensationally pulpy stew. American Hustle’s pre-title card puts its own spin on the practice by cheekily announcing, “Some of this actually happened”. In real life, the ABSCAM sting operation and fallout took place over the course of several years adjoining two decades and, given its convictions of several power brokers on both the local and national level, was fairly big news in its day. American Hustle, “fictionalized” and no doubt seriously compressed both in and for time, with its investment in character motivation but relative indifference to procedural detail, is not the movie to do it justice. The film appears sprawling but lacks ambition where it counts most, which is perhaps why Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, with which it battled for the year’s Best Picture Oscar, is probably the better film overall, despite being demonstrably less fun. American Hustle features marvelous lead performances, direction showy enough to impress yet confident enough to simmer, and a number of terrific cinematic set pieces. That’ll have to suffice. It fits comfortably enough into the edges of any modern conversation about classic confidence, heist or gangster-tinged movies, one that will then almost immediately move past it. Though entertaining, American Hustle could’ve been much more…and, for a while there, when Irving and Sydney occupied the dance floor alone, it was.
“American Hustle” (2013) 3/4 stars