“Some of this actually happened.”
Extrapolating variously from the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, screenwriter Eric Warren Singer has woven together a captivating story about self-reckoning and self-transformation through the art of the hustle. Power hungry FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) entraps smalltown conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to help him take down both New Jersey politicians and elite members of the Italian Mafia. Prior to their arrest, Irving and Sydney’s hustling deals amounted to selling fake loans and fake art. Richie offers them a deal: help the FBI, and they go free. The problem is that Richie keeps revising their agreement in order to take down more, higher profile, individuals—not to mention that Irving’s crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gives as many shits as a rabid honeybadger and is a persistent threat to the delicate web of lies underscoring the game plan behind the FBI’s operation.
The thematic force of the film is the idea of “the hustle,” or “hustling.” It serves as the psychological impetus of the characters who desire to make a better life for themselves, as well as the dramatic catalyst of the plot. Like David O. Russell’s previous, highly acclaimed, films—particularly Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter—the film centers on the human necessity for reinvention. The act of hustling is critical to the process of reinvention. As producer Richard Suckle commented about the fundamental role of hustling in life, and in this film, “[w]e all have to figure out ways to get by, because that’s all we can do.”
Irving and Sydney’s hustling as an art of reinvention becomes one of struggle as they try to pry loose from the grip of Richie and the FBI—as well as from Irving’s hot mess of a wife, who, knowing of Irving’s affair with Sydney, deliberately foils all their attempts to out-maneuver both the FBI and the Mafia.
The collection of actors assembled for this production is stunning; their dynamism with each other in front of the cameras doubly so. Many of the actors have worked together, specifically in Russell’s earlier films, before, and their effortless rapport is palpable. While scripted, hints of improvisation—including the moment when Richie tells Sydney that he loves her and, to a lesser extent, the notorious kiss between Sydney and Rosalyn—give an air of Christopher Guest’s improv comedies but marked with heightened tension, sexual and otherwise.
Christian Bale, with an epic, and terribly elaborate, combover, and who amassed an extra 40lbs in order to play the part of Irving, is simply phenomenal. His character is repulsive yet charming, gruff yet insightful—a 1970s Falstaff. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence fabulously embodied the lacquered, and liquored, Real Housewife of Long Island, Rosalyn. Her rendition of “Live and Let Die” while polishing the furniture is the stuff of GIF legend, but it was actually Amy Adams, whose departure from her usual saccharine roles, who stood out in this film. The camera gravitated towards her every movement, albeit sometimes too annoyingly lingering on her “tits and ass,” but perhaps this was an intentional attempt at ’70s “charm.”
The media seems overly excited about “the kiss” between Adams’s and Lawrence’s characters, which, frankly, isn’t surprising considering the scissor-me-timbers frothy frenzy they worked themselves into while watching Blue is the Warmest Color. Honestly, the kiss is nothing short of a drunken, sloppy straight girl kiss, replete with smeared lipstick. It did not even register on my gaydar, and, in fact, initially felt a bit contrived.
During the New York City press conference Adams explained how the kiss was born: “I came up with the idea, but she executed it in a way that felt driven purely from character. It just didn’t feel like a moment where two girls are going to kiss on screen. It felt emotional. And the laugh she gives after—that was genius.” Reflecting on the kiss a bit more, the logic was an a-logic: in terms of plot, the kiss is completely irrelevant; in terms of character, Sydney’s arc is not driven by personal growth, but is a sequence of punctuated moments of The Crazy and acts of passive-aggressive manipulation. (In one of the film’s best lines, Irving calls her “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”) It is the combination of the two—The Crazy and the passive-aggressive manipulation—that effectively lends some credibility to the logic of the kiss, as the audience is familiar with Sydney’s use of her sexuality as both a lure and a kiss-off.
American Hustle is easily one of the best mainstream films of the year. The melding of comedy and pathos, accentuated by a soundtrack that will have you running to iTunes, not only makes it a fine character study into the psyche of self-creation or reinvention, but a dazzling portrayal of life in late ‘70s America, framed by the politics and ethos of “the hustle”—not to mention some amazing hairdos.