American Hustle (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
For all its twists and turns, “American Hustle,” based on the screenplay by Eric Singer and David O. Russell, can be digested as a straightforward story because of its overarching theme: desperate individuals who will do just about anything to procure better lives. It is irrelevant whether the word “better” is defined by money, celebrity, love, or improving the community. It is about a person who embodies a dominant motivation and how he or she clashes and struggles, forming partnerships—tenuous and durable—along the way if necessary, to get to an endpoint. The whole dance is ruckus fun.
Duplicitous characters—deliberate or otherwise—are front and center. It is made clear that not one of them is trustworthy. Part of the enjoyment is trying to figure out how they think and anticipating what they might do in order to dislodge themselves from sticky situations. The screenplay uses the ‘70s milieu—flamboyant suits and dresses, big hair, attention-grabbing soundtrack—to serve as a complement for moral ambiguity.
At one point, one character tells another, while looking at a painting, that the world is not exactly black and white—bad or good, dirty or clean—but is extremely gray. While the idea has been explored many times prior, it is a way of asking us whether we are we supposed to root for any of the characters. I found it interesting that I was on all of their sides eventually. But the picture highlights the dangers of wanting it all, that it is foolish to expect that everything will work out perfectly just because a plan is planned ever so carefully.
The four central performances are colorful and entertaining. Christian Bale plays a conman named Irving Rosenfeld whose so-called business involves luring unsuspecting people—desperate folks looking to make a lot of money by “investing” five thousand dollars. Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party, shows her his laundromat, and the two begin an affair. Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) but they might as well be divorced. She insists they stay together because her mother and grandmother never divorced their husbands. Meanwhile, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent, has picked up the stench of Irving’s scam. It is such a joy how the actors are able to hit the right comedic and dramatic notes so consistently while managing to avoid making their characters so quirky that it distracts or takes away from the narrative momentum.
But the real magic is in the details. David O. Russell’s astute direction is most welcome and fitting when the camera lingers on a face for a couple of seconds longer than the standard close-up. This enables him as a storyteller to truly capture his characters’ quiet desperation. When they seem happy, perhaps they are really not. When things appear to be going right, whether it be a con or one’s love life, the eyes remain unconvinced—there is worry and anxiety that maybe everything is going too right. What is the Plan B? When doubt or uncertainty paces to and fro in the back of the mind, is that happiness?
Notice I mentioned the main players but I did not describe the con. The reason is I do not think the con is important the story. It drives the plot—to keep it going so that we can observe how the four characters will—or fail to—survive and acclimatize to new situations.