At the Movies: AMERICAN HUSTLE

American Hustle Bradley Cooper Amy Adams
from the official Pinterest boards for American Hustle
American Hustle
Comedic drama, 2013 (Rating: R)
Starring: Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell

Official synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:

A fictional film set in the alluring world of one of the most stunning scandals to rock our nation, American Hustle tells the story of con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who along with his equally cunning and seductive British partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is forced to work for wild FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso pushes them into a world of New Jersey power brokers and Mafia that’s as dangerous as it is enchanting. Jeremy Renner is Carmine Polito, the passionate, volatile, New Jersey political operator caught between the con-artists and Feds. Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) could be the one to pull the thread that brings the entire world crashing down. Like David O. Russell’s previous films, American Hustle defies genre, hinging on raw emotion and life and death stakes. –© Sony

“Some of this actually happened” announces the title card that opens American Hustle, although the end credits offer the disclaimer that “this is a work of fiction.” Writers David O. Russell and Eric Singer changed some names, composited (or invented) a few characters, and exaggerated quite a bit for comic effect, but as detailed in this post on Slate’s Browbeat blog, there really is some stuff you just can’t make up:

“The FBI really did enlist a career swindler from the Bronx who had been arrested for running scams to serve as the key player in an undercover operation. With the con artist leading the way, the Feds dangled the lure of a fictitious Arab sheikh named Abdul, who supposedly wanted to use his millions to buy things that can’t legally be bought—such as fast-track citizenship and approval to invest in new Atlantic City casinos. A number of public officials happily responded that, in exchange for cash, they would ensure that various official bodies did the sheikh’s bidding. The operation, revealed to great media fanfare in 1980, was called Abscam (for “Abdul scam”) and resulted in the conviction of 19 people, including the mayor of Camden, N.J., six U.S. congressmen, and a U.S. senator, Harrison A. Williams of New Jersey. It was the largest bribery scandal in the history of Congress.”

What “actually happened” happened in the late 1970s, and as a high-schooler at the time, I didn’t know much about “Abscam” other than that it killed a few political careers. American Hustle didn’t tell me all that much more about it, but I don’t think that’s its purpose.

These are a few definitions of the word “hustle”:

  • (Slang) an inducing by fraud, pressure, or deception, especially of inexperienced or uninformed persons, to buy something, to participate in an illicit scheme, dishonest gambling game, etc.
  • (Informal) a competitive struggle: the hustle to make a living.
  • a fast, lively, popular ballroom dance evolving from Latin American, swing, rock, and disco dance styles, with a strong basic rhythm and simple step pattern augmented by strenuous turns, breaks, etc.

Any or all of them could apply in interpreting the title of American Hustle, but that’s only a small part of the fun of this film. The semi-true story that frames it is a bigger part. The smart screenplay, strong performances, and perfect period atmosphere are the parts that made watching this movie a genuine delight for me. I may not remember much about Abscam, but I do remember the late 1970s, and they are excellently rendered here.

American Hustle is nominated for 10 Academy Awards and has already won Best Picture recognition from the Golden Globes and SAG, so it’s clearly doing some things right. I’d like to recognize its cast for Special Achievements in Hairstyling, in ascending order:

  • (tie) Jennifer Lawrence’s and Amy Adams’s feathers, via Charlie’s Angels
  • Bradley Cooper’s perm rods
  • Jeremy Renner’s pompadour, via Elvis: The Vegas Years
  • Christian Bale’s Epic Comb-over

Some of the facts in the story behind American Hustle are pretty comical, so spinning it into farce seems like a pretty reasonable progression. But it’s never mean-spirited–this is farce with heart, and has some real affection for its perpetrators. The film’s characters are misguided and misdirected, but the film itself is neither, and I enjoyed it enormously.

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