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American Hustle

“American Hustle” begins with one of the best opening scenes in recent memory. Before we see anything else, we see Christian Bale — the guy who played millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne not that long ago — meticulously arranging, pasting, and spraying into place a terribly elaborate and truly hideous comb over. It’s funny, and it tells us volumes about this character. He’s a con man, a master at the art of deception, and a very careful one. Every detail has to be exactly right, “from the feet up” — all the way up to the fake hair.

But he’s gotten himself into a situation where nothing’s right, everything is slapdash, and he’s out of control. It’s only a matter of time before he ends up in prison, or worse. That’s all thanks to Bradley Cooper, an FBI agent who caught on to one of his small time schemes, and is using it as leverage against him and his partner, Amy Adams into larger and ever more dangerous schemes, until they’re looking at taking down powerful politicians, and ending up on the wrong side of the mob. Bale isn’t happy about any of this; he’s a small fish happy in his big pond; he’d rather be scamming gambling addicts than having a sitdown with Robert De Niro.

Some of this actually happened. The film is based on the “Abscam” scandal from the late ’70s, loosely. The historical situation is pretty crazy in and of itself, and indicative of the dysfunction in American government and culture in the ’70s. (“Argo” this ain’t.) In a nutshell, the FBI grew tired of being reprimanded by Congress, so the feds launched an operation against Congress itself. It involved a fake “Arab” seeking to invest millions into New Jersey’s slumping economy, and willing to grease whatever palms necessary to get the casino licenses, citizenship and anything else needed to get the job done. Abscam brought down several Representatives and one Senator on bribery charges, but it also resulted in something called the “Civiletti Undercover Guidelines,” which basically was the Attorney General telling the FBI to never do anything like it ever again.

It’s a situation a little too messy for a straightforward film adaptation, but David O. Russell likes to make messy movies. Russell’s signature talent is his ability to both create and control chaos onscreen. He loves to set crazy characters on colliding paths, and knows there are infinite ways to play crazy. It’s hard to imagine any other director managing the scenes Russell manages, scenes in which three or four or five crazy people bounce off of each other at odd angles in fantastically entertaining ways.  He’s also skilled at swinging from zany to serious (and back) at the drop of a hat. It’s kind of like watching Real Housewives: these people are nuts, but we care about them anyway. Actually, it’s infinitely more entertaining than Real Housewives.

Russell has developed a consistent stable of actors he likes to work with — or who like to work with him. Rumor has it he’s an extremely demanding director, known for feeding improvised lines to actors from alongside the camera during shooting. Also, there’s a video on YouTube of him ranting and raving at Lily Tomlin during the shooting of “I Heart Huckabees,” though Tomlin afterward said that everything was fine between them and she’d be happy to work with him again. Some can’t take the heat, and some thrive in it.

Amy Adams is better in Russell’s movies than in anything else she’s done, and so is Bradley Cooper. Cooper has earned Oscar nominations for his two performances in Russell’s films, despite playing basically the same character in both of them (manic and naïve, goal-driven, desperate, prone to violent outbursts but somehow forgivable and even innocent.) I’m not convinced yet that Cooper is a great actor–I’d like to see more range in his performances — but he has without a doubt created a very watchable character performance that can span multiple films. In that way he’s kind of like Al Pacino or Woody Allen.

Christian Bale, on the other hand, is a man of a thousand faces (and mannerisms, accents, etc.) If the Oscar always goes to the actor who uglies up best, Christian Bale got robbed. He gained 50 lbs and looks terrible. I guess that’s not as impressive at Matthew McConaughey losing 50 lbs., but McConaughey is still rodeo-sexy through most of Dallas Buyers Club. Bale just looks bad here, and that’s good. It’s amazing to me that the same guy can play Batman, Patrick Bateman and a crackhead boxing has-been who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (or maybe he just tripped.)

But Jennifer Lawrence, who can seemingly do anything, might be the best part of the movie. She plays Bale’s wife, whom he can’t seem to get away from (he calls her “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”) She routinely steals scenes by playing absolutely, but uniquely and distinctly, batshit crazy. She’s the opposite of her nail finish–she’s mostly rotten and a little bit sweet, and you can’t get enough of her. You just keep coming back.

“American Hustle” is a zany, screwball ride, but it’s also a movie about survival and reinvention. It’s about people who are conning themselves, who are desperate to get out of their situations and maybe their skins. Ironically, the only characters who have a firm grasp on their real identities are the cons. Bradley Cooper thinks he’s a hotshot FBI agent, but really he’s small potatoes with too much ambition and not enough ethics or loyalty. Jeremy Renner thinks he’s a big-hearted mayor who does everything for the people of New Jersey, but he’s on the take, and in bed with the mafia. Best of all is Jennifer Lawrence, who thinks she’s taking care of her family by setting the microwave on fire and “motivating” her husband by nearly getting him killed.  Amy Adams, meanwhile, grows tired of playing a part and just wants someone to be real with, and Christian Bale knows he’s a small time crook and has no appetite for bigger fish. In the world these characters live in, ambition is the greatest sin — ambition and lying to your friends.


Random Notes:

  •  I loved Louis C.K. as Cooper’s boss.  The ice fishing story!
  •  Amy Adams British accent is terrible… but is it terrible on purpose?  She’s a stripper from Albuquerque, after all.  If so, what does it take for an actress to purposely affect a bad accent?
  • I didn’t like Jeremy Renner.  I never like Jeremy Renner. His performance was the only one in the film that didn’t work for me.  He’s supposed to be New Jersey through and through, but take away the hair, and he might as well be from Orange County
  •  This keeps getting compared to Scorsese and “Goodfellas,” but the similarities seem superficial to me (the costumes, big songs on the soundtrack) Russell definitely has his own voice as a director.



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3 Responses

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  1. Robbie said

    Hmm. Goodfellas didn’t come to mind, but Donnie Brasco did. Isn’t there a reference to Abscam in Donnie Brasco? (The boat that they used for their party when they were in Florida.)

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