Review: American Hustle

American Hustle

Trailer

David O' Russell heads to the 70's in American Hustle, with an all star cast.

David O’ Russell heads to the 70’s in American Hustle, with an all star cast.

David O. Russell is one of those directors with an immense reputation but last year’s critical darling Silver Linings Playbook, was a movie that I was far less impressed by than many others. But there must be something there, considering the continued praise that Russell, and his movies, routinely receive. So, back I was drawn.

Another year goes by, and Russell’s 2013 offering couldn’t be more different to his last film. A very loose re-telling of the “Abscam” sting operation, it see’s Russell re-unite with four of the best actors he’s ever worked with to put together a very unique experience of the 1970’s. This is one of those films that has so much going for it before you even sit down in a theatre – an interesting story hook and a magnificent, proven cast – that expectations can only be high.

In 1978 Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are a successful con-artist duo, utilising their powers of deception to make themselves a great deal of money. But when they are caught out by FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper), the two are forced to work with the authorities on a large scale sting operation, targeting New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). As Rosenfeld deals with his unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and Prosser gets closer to Di Maso, the trio find themselves immersed in a dangerous game of lies and subterfuge, involving senators, the mob and many wrecked lives.

In depth discussion, with spoilers, from here on out. For a spoiler free review, please visit The Write Club.

American Hustle is certainly a fascinating story, one of greed, love and obsession, all set-up along with a really great glimpse at east coast America during the seventies. The actual scam portion of the affair is juxtaposed really nicely with the more personal look at this unholy trinity that the Bale, Adams and Cooper characters represent. The first part is the real pace setter, and following that plot along to its conclusion is enough to really hook the audience in, but the real quality of American Hustle is in the character studies that it provides. “Abscam” is important, but only insofar as it allows a place for those three characters to evolve before our eyes.

As an adaptation of real life events, American Hustle is played very fast and loose, and in a very deliberate way. The opening title card reads “Some of this actually happened”, the sort of starting off point that creates the required mood in the audience almost immediately. Russell isn’t here to get to the bottom of the Abscam operation and lay bare all of its intricacies, success and failures on film. He’s here to tell us about Rosenfeld, Prosser and DiMaso, and everything else is secondary to that quest. The audience shouldn’t expect too much accuracy, and you almost feel as if Russell would have been happier just making stuff up out of his imagination. This is adaptation taken almost to its furthest extent, with just the bare semblance of the real-life events retained. Considering the direction that Russell went in, and the quality that the direction contained, I’m satisfied with that.

In terms of inspiration, American Hustle owes much to the likes of Goodfellas, Boogie Nights and Saturday Night Fever. You can see that clearly, in terms of shot selection, set design and general production. It’s never too garish though, and there certainly isn’t any outright aping, save maybe in one or two scenes. They’re not the worst films to take some inspiration from after all and any movie that chooses this era as its setting is bound to draw a little water from those wells.

American Hustle is a story about con artists and deception, so it is only to be expected that deception forms a crucial part of the entire narrative. Half the drama is in figuring out when characters are lying and when they are telling the truth, what their actual aims are and how they are trying to fulfil them. Everyone lies in American Hustle, to themselves and to others.

This can make for a somewhat frustrating experience some of the time. I’m not one of those people who particularly enjoys second guessing every scene or every bit of dialogue. But it’s only an occasional feeling. Enough is done to allow for a degree of insightfulness from the audience when it comes to determining what is true and what is not, whether it is the use of a narration – and not an unreliable one, or so it seems – and some clever visual cues (more below).

The "Abscam" portions of the plat should be viewed as secondary to the amazing character driven drama elsewhere.

The “Abscam” portions of the plat should be viewed as secondary to the amazing character driven drama elsewhere.

The deception is seen even in the overall structure of the film, which begins in medias res, with a scene from nearly an hour into the running time if we were going chronologically. We’re thrown into the main plot at a vital moment and forced to figure things out on our own, aware that some kind of scam is being pulled but not totally aware of what its nature is exactly – which is presumably just what Russell wants us to feel, a strange sense that all is not what it seems without all of the details being made obvious. In a con-artist movie, creating such a sense is very important, it helps suck the audience into the narrative, and I think that Russell has mostly succeeded.

I mean, that opening scene with Rosenfeld is rather brilliant when it comes down to it. Here we have an overweight, balding man, who spends a great deal of time in the morning and a great deal of product to hide that fact. When he does his comb over, he does it with the air of a man who has done it hundreds of times before, and for whom the action is now a careful routine he could do with his eyes closed. It’s just another deception, but a very well practised one – just like all of the other cons Rosenfeld and others pull. From that first scene, we know that we are dealing with liars and deceivers, who bend the truth, even about how they look, whenever they want and for their own gain.

The pacing of the movie is a little strange, almost perturbing. It’s a slow boil drama, and not one to be entered into lightly. As the story of Rosenfeld, Prosser and DiMaso, it takes its time showing us around their psyches and relationships, to the detriment of the Abscam plot. As a result, American Hustle routinely feels a little slow, at times a bit of a grind, something that is not helped by its extreme running length, clocking in at just shy of two and a half hours. There are certainly some redundant elements all about, like almost the entirety of the stuff with Rosenfeld’s wife, though that is mostly saved by the performance of Jennifer Lawrence.

Part of the pacing problem is the last act, which takes the form of a succession of climax-style set-ups, as we go to the meeting with the mob boss, to more planning, to Rosenfeld being nearly killed by the mob, to the meeting with the mob boss lawyer, to confrontations with the FBI, to the actual ending, this series of sequences that frequently seem like they might be a finale before things just keep going, not dissimilar to the structure of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. Parts of it seem very played out and superfluous to me, as if Russell was just indulging some of his worst instincts and didn’t know when to stop. The entire sequence where Rosalyn nearly gets Rosenfeld killed had a purpose, but could easily have been cut out without really losing anything – we already knew Rosalyn was unstable and that the mob was headed by  a very dangerous individual. Russell flat out told us that. It’s just one example.

Weirdly, part of me thinks that this would be a better movie it if cut out the Abscam stuff almost entirely, and maybe focused just on the Rosenfeld/Prosser relationship, with DiMaso the man trying to track them down and bring their spree to an end. Instead, the wonderful interconnected rdama between the three of them is wrapped around a larger plot involving a sting, and while that plot is far from throwaway or uninteresting, it certainly isn’t as good as the relationship drama that is placed next to.

The Abscam parts, with the fake identities, the planning, the cameras and the montaging play out very much like a heist movie, or like any plot from TV shows like Hustle. Its slick, it shows off different parts of human nature and it is includes some very good scenes and set-pieces. But American Hustle is not that movie, and those sections seem almost like a sop to the parts of the audience that would have fully expected them. Russell is at his strongest when examining the characters and motivations of his three leads, along with Lawrence as an auxiliary, and probably weakest when he tries to make the Abscam thing seem important when it is put next to that in a narrative context.

It seems like I’m doing nothing but be negative a lot of the review so far, but that’s not indicative of my overall opinion. The trinity of the three leads is superbly done and narrated, a wonderful chemistry between all three characters, some great back and forth to see and enjoy. There is never any chaff in those moments, everything means something. Just looking at that opening sequence, where all three find themselves in a room together, you learn so much. Rosenfeld is vain to a fault, but also impeccably calm and level headed, notwithstanding his intense jealous streaks. Prosser is a manipulator, but also has a guilty streak when it comes to Rosenfeld, for whom she cares for deeply. And DiMaso has an anger problem, almost a manic personality, prone to childish tantrums one moment and professionalism in the next. All in one scene, all from just the three talking to each other, and none of it made too obvious to the audience, all done with nuance and skill by the director and his writers.

American Hustle is just chock full of stuff like that. Rosenfeld telling Prosser about his real “business” dealings for the first time, and her reaction. DiMaso’s conversations with his FBI superior, with all of its faux respect. Rosenfeld and Prosser’s breakdown and her commitment to using Di Maso for her own ends. The Prosser/Di Maso dancing scene, a whirlpool of seventies glitter and charm, contrasted immediately with a sordid encounter in a bathroom stall. Rosenfeld out for dinner with Polito, growing genuinely close to another human being for the first time. All three of them meeting with politicians and gangsters, and having to deal with the unexpected twist of an Arab-speaking mob boss. Rosenfeld’s last meeting with Polito and the subsequent breakdown. The last showdown in the FBI office.

Just a sampling, but everyone one of those scenes is the match of the one I described above, masterpieces of “show, don’t tell” in every expression and line of dialogue, in everything that it lets you know and everything that it leaves you to figure out for yourself.

The relationship between Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser is very well portrayed by Bale and Adams respectively.

The relationship between Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser is very well portrayed by Bale and Adams respectively.

This is an immense effort at character study, and not just for the main three (though them primarily). Rosenfeld starts out as a con-man, dismissive of his own warped moral compass. He’s still lonely, and finds the perfect companionship in Prosser, with whom he actually see’s a future. But it’s one that conflicts with his actual wife, this strange burden that he volunteered for, despite his knowledge that he himself is being scammed, a glimpse at a hidden heart that Rosenfeld is loath to truly reveal. Rosalyn is almost a penance that he forces upon himself, with Prosser taking the form of salvation. His journey is one of finding out that the con and playing people isn’t everything, something he discovers in three crucial ways: when Prosser starts her own flirtatious con game with DiMaso, which hurts Rosenfeld to an untapped extent, when Rosenfeld finds himself being played very directly by DiMaso and the FBI, a position he comes to loath, and finally when he makes a genuine friendship with Polito that he is already in the process of destroying, something that he fights tooth and nail to try and salvage towards the end. By the conclusion of American Hustle, he has discovered that inner hero, this more moral individual, who moves beyond his penance with Rosalyn and finds a happier life.

Then there is Sydney Prosser. As she starts out, she’s a desperate woman, someone who wants to reach beyond her station and is willing to try fair means or foul. When the fair doesn’t really work out, she moves to the foul, and finds a joy in it. But that is her hubris, which finds nemesis through DiMaso, someone that she has to try and turn to her own advantage, in a way that is sickening to her. Her conclusion is much the same as Rosenfeld, finding a more moral, safer path, a recognition that the con isn’t everything.

DiMaso’s journey is different to some extent. He starts off as a petulant child willing to game the FBI and the happy couple for his own ends, but who writes his own destruction over and over, in every scheme he doesn’t back away from and every lie he unwittingly swallows. Stuck at home with his mother and boring fiancée, he’ll do anything to make a name for himself. His journey ends in disappointment and ruin, a tough lesson learned, but not an unworthy one. He wanted to be a big shot, but ended up lower than ever.

Russell gives us all three of these critical journeys and arcs, within the realm of the Abscam plot, and pulls the vast majority of them off flawlessly, with style, vigour and panache. That’s the truly great thing about American Hustle, the way that it presents this characters and the path they have to go to become changed people, in a way that is only occasionally a bit unbelievable.

They also contain two very well developed and presented love plots, between Rosenfeld and Prosser, and DiMaso and Prosser. The first is the crux of the whole matter, two damaged people clinging to each other, but fracturing when placed into the terrible situation that they find themselves in. The second might be even better, one that begins as a lie but which Prosser is inexorably drawn into to a very credible extent, leaving the audience as mystified as she appears to be. Does she really have an attraction to DiMaso by the end, or is still a deception? We aren’t completely sure, and that’s as it should be. DiMaso worms his way into her heart in a very real way, as damaged as she is, and while it is a warped romance, it is still as real as the one with Rosenfeld.

For me, the most of the unbelievability came at the conclusion, the actual ending, which for me was just a tad too happy. Rosenfeld and Prosser get to walk away from it all, with a happy life together which even includes Rosenfeld’s adopted son. Rosalyn gets a new man and releases her grip on Rosenfeld and it’s happily ever after. As an ending to the story just told, I felt that it didn’t quite fit. The terrible pain, lies and betrayal that they all experienced did not lead to a fairy tale conclusion for me, and I felt that I would have been more satisfied had a few people not gotten everything that they really wanted by journeys end, apart from DiMaso of course.

I’ve taken to always saying a word about the use of female characters in the films I review, and I’m glad to say I was delighted with how American Hustle treated the female sex. Aside from two brilliant performances from Adams and Lawrence, their two characters are well developed, hold their own with the men on screen, and are far more than mindless bodies to ogle at (even if they play that role to a tee when required). The flashing of breasts, curves or buttocks is not an inherently bad thing as long as it has a purpose beyond immature gratification. Sydney and Rosalyn are women who use their sexuality as a tool, as a weapon, with confidence and a steely nerve, all part of the various cons and deceptions, save for the few brief moments of genuine desire and passion. I never once felt that the actresses were being aimlessly exploited for their bodies when they did happen to show a bit of flesh. Every last bit of it – from Rosalyn’s early seduction to Prosser’s near constant distraction with her uniquely cut tops – served a valid purpose and that is a very important thing.

And as stated, both Prosser and Rosalyn are well developed, three dimensional, realistic human beings, with aims, motivations methods and arcs that fit them well and do not make them greater or lesser than the male members of the cast. When they come up against each other late on, sparks fly, these two powerful, committed women butting heads in an amazingly provocative way, though I could have done without the bizarre kiss that the two share in the casino bathroom

American Hustle is also a funny movie, in a dark, almost sombre way. It is a not an outwardly funny film, but it has a wide variety of comedic elements, some traditional (DiMasoand his boss) some not so traditional (Rosenfeld with his wife). That Russell is able to include all of these random, disparate elements and never have them distract too much from the material is to be commended, but he did the same thing with Silver Linings Playbook. It’s hardly laugh a minute, but in a story that is very serious, with serious character drama and serious action, the frequently asides of funny are implemented well and help to alleviate some of the tension when required.

American Hustle features some great female characters, more than just bimbos in loose clothing.

American Hustle features some great female characters, more than just bimbos in loose clothing.

Before I move on, I want to once again say that, while I could take or leave elements of American Hustle, I still thoroughly enjoyed it because of the character creation. I felt that these were real, tangible people, that I could understand, empathise with and feel some sympathy towards, all of them, in turn. That’s no small feat to do with so many actors in the time allotted, but Russell pulled it off wonderfully. “Three dimensional” might be a bit of an overused word in this context, but it still fits: these arefar  from placeholders, far from flat and uninspired. They’re great characters and they are the real triumph of American Hustle.

In terms of acting, I can’t think of a single bad performance in American Hustle, not a one. There are five main roles and a large amount of supporting, but I think that everybody, large to small, did a great job with whatever time and material they were given.

There are only so many superlatives you can apply to a man like Christian Bale before it all becomes completely superfluous. Is there anyone else in Hollywood who commits to a role as much as he does? Bale doesn’t act his roles, he becomes them, in thought and appearance. Packing on the pounds for the role of Irving Rosenfeld is one thing, and shows clearly the kind of actor Bale is, but his amazing talent for total assumption of parts is the other aspect. He captures every little nuance, every detail, from the intricate preparation of Rosenfeld’s hair to the way that his entire attitude seems to change when he’s dealing with Rosalyn. He makes Rosenfeld the supremely confident yet quietly frustrated individual that he has to be, the smooth talker one moment, the hurt romantic the next. And the accent? Brilliantly performed.

Amy Adams is wonderful as Prosser, with every dress and voice change. Rosenfeld seems to almost just be himself on cons, but Adams’ Prosser is the real actor, playing a different role in every other scene, a state of affairs that she rises to admirably. Prosser’s confidence in her deceptions is contrasted with a very real weakness and vulnerability, something that Adams shows off without words, in scenes like that between her and DiMaso in the cell or in the apartment when he aggressively tries to seduce her. She is a china doll to an extent, beautiful and alluring, but easily broken and damaged. As a powerful women, Adams excels, but her real victory at the craft is in doing that effectively whilst also showing genuine frailty.

Cooper is having a ball as DiMaso, getting to play a real nasty piece of work who is still too likeable to be a true bad guy. His DiMaso is angry, frustrated, ambitious, two-timing, duplicitous and intense in so many different ways, and Cooper just fills him with so much life and verve, in every petty insult or denial filled elaboration of his plan to reel Polito in. His quiet running battle with Bale is a joy to watch, but the real good stiff is his interaction with Adams, an on screen duo that ooze sexual frustration and barely concealed lust whenever they are in the same shot. Through all that Cooper makes sure that his DiMaso is still, to an acceptable extent, grounded with his very base motivation of simply wanting to rise higher than his current station, that stops him from being seen by the audience as just some clownish government agent.

Jennifer Lawrence might not be playing the most important role of her career here – Rosalyn really seems to exist in this movie just so Rosenfeld has a reason not to take off when DiMaso catches him – but she still does amazing work. But then again, when has she not? Fresh off reprising her rapidly becoming iconic stint as Katniss Everdeen, she knocks it out of the park again, showing us a woman who is confident and aggressive in her sexuality, devious in her deceptions, but altogether desperate when it comes to her loneliness, her ineptitude at housekeeping and her complete inability to act rationally when it comes to her husband. Providing some of the darkest and lightest moments in American Hustle, Rosalyn is a great character, one that initially seems like a crazy exaggeration of a person, but who fits in neatly by the end.

Jeremy Renner is certainly back on form here, in a role that is understated but vitally important. He plays the schmoozing politician to a tee, all the way down to kissing the babies. Polito is a man who is fully in control of himself nearly all the time, every inch the public man, but it is in a very genuine way. You’re never in any doubt as to Polito’s hoarsest motivations, even if it takes him into a den of thieves and murderers. Renner shows him as the family man and the close friend of Rosenfeld, even while he shows himself as a bit of a schemer himself. His finest hour is undoubtedly the breakdown, as Rosenfeld reveals all, and Polito’s entire life and career comes crashing down around him, with Renner showing us a man who seems close to throwing up and collapsing under the weight of this revelation.

The rest of the cast is relatively small but uniformly decent. Louis C.K. is just fantastic as DiMaso’s immediate superior, increasingly exasperated by him but ultimately ending with the last laugh. Jack Huston as Rosalyn’s mafia lover is brief but memorable. Alessandro Nivlo is the scheming FBI head who goes back and forth between DiMaso and his boss. Elizabeth Röhm is short but sweet as Polito commited wife who joins him in his breakdown.

And then there is Robert De Niro, appearing uncredited as yet another mob boss (the question being whether he seeks out these roles or if these are all that he is offered nowadays). De Niro is as good as he always is in this kind of part, intense, threatening and very, very scary, making a very large impression in the brief time that he is on screen.

Louis C.K manages to steal the show in just about every scene he's in.

Louis C.K manages to steal the show in just about every scene he’s in.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the cast, simply because there is so little to be said beyond outright praise. A splendid effort from all.

Visually, it’s a very slick production that Russell has put together in collaboration with cinematographer Linus Sandgren. While the influence of other films is obvious – that whole disco sequence is complete lifted for example – it’s still a really well imagined world that exemplifies a lot about the seventies, the outer sheen of it combined with the inner grime when hotel suites weren’t that fancy looking, offices weren’t that big, even in the FBI, and a microwave was the height of luxury.  Sure it has a bit of a gaudy filter on it to help it along, but it still works really well.

The shot selection is great, especially when the more important sets, like the casino, are introduced, with great cuts and continuing pans. There’s an emphasis on the up close shot when people are in solitary moments, like that great opening scene, but for the most part Russell is happy to open things up and take in as much of the environment as possible, and why wouldn’t he? There’s enough fine production value in sets and on location to justify trying to widen the angles and show off that world.

The costuming and hairstyle department has really gone above and beyond here, with some spectacular looking garments and follicle wizardry. Prosser in particular looks eye catchingly stunning in just about every scene, but she’s just the most noticeable. Everybody has the right look, capturing all of the garishness and bright colours of the decade, the kind of clothes that enraptures the audience in the way that it simply looks so extreme.

But it’s the hair that is actually more important, if only because it’s actually a vital symbol in the film. Everyone is obsessed with appearances in American Hustle, with utilising their bodies in whatever deception they practice, whether its curls or a comb over. There’s this recurring motif of characters being seen in curlers, in scenes where they act more truthfully – like DiMaso at home with his family or Prosser revealing to him that she’s actually American – their pretensions and realities laid bare along with the effort they put into hair. Rosenfeld of course obsesses over his baldness, and some of the only times he gets dangerously angry is when its true nature is pointed out to him. Polito has the gelled up perfection, Rosalyn has the fancy do. All of this is contrasted nicely with a character like Di Niro’s mob boss, who has horrible looking, damaged hair, but doesn’t seem to care at all, a violent man with no pretences.

All of that is fascinating enough, and a testament to the choices that Russell has made. In a film about deception and lies, utilising something like hairstyle in such a manner is really inspired, and is just one small part of the really commendable visual effort in American Hustle.

Russell and Eric Warren Singer have come up with a really good script, albeit one that maybes doesn’t sound quite right. I’m struggling to put this into words that make sense, but there are occasions when what he characters are saying simply doesn’t feel right, not natural, almost fantastical. It’s an imminently quotable script all right, there just is that little bit of make believe about it. I suppose that might be a reaction to how well developed and real the characters are made out to be, but there are plenty of times when the dialogue is actually holding back on that process, if that makes any sense. It’s the best I can do.

There are still lots of very well scripted moments mind you, it’s just important to evaluate them for what they are. I especially liked the meeting with Tellegio for its wordplay, and the terrifying level of tension created when the man started speaking Arabic.

The narration is a part of that, one of the best parts of the script, this switching thing that moves from character to character as required, and sometimes takes the form of a conversation. Narrations can be really hit and miss sometimes – in my experience, they’re mostly unnecessary – but it fits here, as Rosenfeld lays out his life story and his philosophy, as Prosser outlines her reasons for trying to drag herself up in the world.

The script’s also full of really humorous moments, the lion’s share of which go to Lawrence and her interactions with Bale, a running battle of familiar arguments. Disputes over the “science oven” and her bafflingly amazing ability for self deception when it comes to approaching her own mistakes are the keystones of it. There’s also a pitch perfect back and forth between DiMaso and Louis C.K’s increasingly exasperated supervisor, centring on a story that the veteran comedian never even gets to finish, that I really, really loved. It was just a perfect dynamic, C.K as the straight man to Cooper’s zany guy who does everything he can to undermine his boss but ends up paying the price for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a lot of that particular interaction was ad-libbed or something, it felt so free flowing and natural.

American Hustle features a really great soundtrack, though I suppose that really isn’t that hard to accomplish. You can throw a dart in a record store and probably find something that would be suitable as a backing track from this decade. There’s a nice selection of hits to be heard, that accentuate the aural experience of the film nicely. Less impressive is Danny Elfman’s score, which is understated to a fault and fairly forgettable.

And so, to themes. I’ve already talked a lot about, but the main theme of American Hustle is one of deception, lies and convenience tricks. Just about everybody, of any import, in American Hustle is lying in some fashion. Rosenfeld is a con artist, and maintains a warped relationship for the sake of his adopted son. Prosser concocts new identities likes its going out of style, and goes after DiMaso from an initial footing of simply looking after her own interests. DiMaso lies repeatedly to his own superiors just to try and grab some glory. Polito lies for his constituents. Rosalyn lies as a matter of course.

American Hustle is the story of those deceptions, how they work out and how they crash into each other. It’s not a pretty story, but it works out for some people, with Rosenfeld and Prosser utilising a long con to their own benefit by the conclusion. The lies that we tell other people are shown to be just as important as the lies that we tell ourselves, most firmly in the case of DiMaso, whose self delusion leads him down the garden path set by Rosenfeld and Prosser, and also, to a lesser extent, Rosalyn, whose in ability to do anything but play the victim almost leads to Rosenfeld’s murder.

Lies are not good, bad or indifferent in American Hustle, they are simply a way of life, something as common to all of the characters as their flamboyant shirts or elaborate hairstyles. They are an innate part of everyone, something that people cannot help but partake in. Sometimes they to lead to success and happiness, other times to ruin and ruination.

Hair and clothes are important symbols throughout, helping to signify who is lying and who is not.

Hair and clothes are important symbols throughout, helping to signify who is lying and who is not.

Connected to all that is a theme of the “greater good”, seen most clearly through the character of Polito. American Hustle is unflinchingly sympathetic towards him and the situation that he finds himself in, willingly dealing with shady elements for the sake of his state and his constituents. There doesn’t appear to be a really dishonest bone in Polito’s body, but he still deals with those elements anyway, because he sees it as worth it, worth the danger, worth the risk. This is something that comes as a shock to the likes of Rosenfeld, who have only ever seen immoral purposes as a tool for self aggrandisement. Seeing Polito undertake all that he does, for purely unselfish reasons, provokes a crisis of confidence in Rosenfeld, who see’s that what he is doing, all in the pursuit of the greater good, will have consequences and victims who may not fully deserve their fate.

This realisation is part of Rosenfeld’s turn back towards a moral good by the end of the film, rescuing Polito as much as he can, while helping to bring down the real villain of the piece, DiMaso, who does not see the likes of Polito for who they really are, simply as rungs to be climbed in his own career. Polito doesn’t weep and break down near the conclusion because his schemes have been revealed, he breaks down because he knows that all that has transpired has been a lie, that will destroy his career and thus his ability to aid his community and be the committed family man that he is. On the other hand, DiMaso also suffers a fall, but his mourning and frustration is only for himself and his own misery. Polito served the greater good, DiMaso did not, and it is this kind of thing that frames the sympathy of the audience by the conclusion.

Another theme, that I have already touched on, is that of appearances. Russell is at such pain to focus on the appearances of his actors that one cannot help but notice the common symbolism and themes therein. American Hustle is a movie about con men and women after all, so appearances are very important. The use of hair as an indicator as to the truthfulness and general character of a person is repeated throughout, and the more colourful the clothes in American Hustle, the more likelihood that somebody is engaged in something clandestine. How somebody looks in the world of American Hustle determines how they get through life, how much of a success they are and how confident they are. Rosenfeld doesn’t spend so much time on his hair and appearance in the morning just for the hell of it. He does it because it is all about confidence, but the outward showing that he makes in order to lure in victims, and his own inward confidence, damaged by his vain streak. This sort of thing is repeated throughout American Hustle.

There is also a very unexpected theme of family in American Hustle, seen through three different characters in three different ways. Rosenfeld approaches family in a surprisingly honest way, for that character anyway. He’s a genuinely devoted father, if not so much a devoted husband. He sees his family as something worth fighting for, worth lying for, worth protecting, even if it means destroying Polito and maintaining the fiction of his marriage. It shows his inner kernel of moral righteousness and streak of responsibility.

Polito is much the same, which is probably why the two men get on so well. Polito’s family are simply the inner core of his relationship with his wider community, which inspires everything that he does in American Hustle. He does it all for the very best reasons, and his loving family is a key part of all of that.

Contrasting with the two men is DiMaso. The brief glimpse we get of his family is one of a rundown apartment, a slightly unhinged mother and a bored looking fiancée, things that DiMaso treats as a nuisance to be tolerated and to be ignored as soon as it is possible. He has some affection for his mother clearly, but not enough to live the kind Christian life that she presumably wants for him. The way these three men interact with their families tells us a lot about all of them.

Lastly, there is a theme of love, or at least what love really is. The romantic triangle between Rosenfeld, Prosser and DiMaso dominates American Hustle, but by the end it is clear where the real affection lies in the trinity. Rosenfeld and Prosser have their problems, huge ones. Any relationship built primarily on a lie, is bound to have that. But, because they truly love each other, which is more than the blind lust that DiMaso bases his affection around, they are able to work through it and make a life for themselves (and as an aside, its weirdly compelling to showcase a romantic plot between a gorgeous woman and an overweight man, with the moments where Prosser narrates why she finds Rosenfeld so attractive being particularly interesting).

Contrast all of that with Rosenfeld and Rosalyn, a cold meaningless relationship that Rosenfeld maintains out of a sense of guilt and that Rosalyn maintains out of a sense of desperation and as part of her own not so subtle con game. True love, if such a thing really exists, is what Rosenfeld and Prosser have, a powerful and genuine connection between two people that causes them to relate with, empathise with and suffer with the other person, even when times get very bad and nothing seems to be sacred.

A conclusion then. American Hustle is a great way to start the year when it comes to watching films. It’s a slick, accomplished production, full of great performances from its primary cast, some utterly fantastic characterisation and visuals that bring the viewers into this stylised seventies world. American Hustle has so much going for it. It has pacing issues, an ending that rankles a little and the script can take you out of it on occasion, but when viewed against the many positives that the film can claim to have, these are fairly low scale problems.

Where Silver Linings Playbook had a garbled approach to the main issue, a supporting cast that was largely wasted and numerous plot holes. American Hustle has a strong commitment to what it wants to do, a cast that performs near flawlessly at all levels and features a coherent narrative that, while secondary to some of the intense drama between the main players, is still very enjoyable.

Russell has come up with something really special here, the kind of film that is sure to be ringing up the nominations at the Oscars. As a character study and in-depth look at the power and perversion of deception, it is an exceptional film, and that is where its key strengths are, and the main reason that I would fully recommend it to anyone.

An excellent character studio and an excellent look into the 1970's.

An excellent character study and an excellent look into the 1970’s.

(All images are copyright of Entertainment Film Distributors and Columbia Pictures). 

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2 Responses to Review: American Hustle

  1. Pingback: Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Review: Joy | Never Felt Better

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