Context for the Hustle

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By Andrew Sheldon

Seldom can a film can establish its themes and tone in its first scene as simply and effectively as in David O. Russell’s American Hustle. The first thing that struck me, aside from Christian Bale’s pot-belly, was the number of laughs (I remember having a similar reaction to PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights, also set in the 1970’s). It’s amazing how many comedic moments are packed into these 140 minute drama. It’s a tough balancing act that Russell executes with mastery, and the balance begins right there in the first seconds of the film.

In the first scene we meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) – a balding, overweight con man – as he goes through the lengthy procedure of applying a small patch of false hair on the crown of his head before combing his sides over. It’s a great image for a film about deception; the little white lies we tell to get us through the “hustle” of our daily lives. What’s so perfect about watching Rosenfeld watch himself in the mirror is that it offers its own mirror to the point: The lies we tell ourselves that help us survive.

Is Rosenfeld fooling himself?

This harkens back to another film of the same period that American Hustle will undoubtedly be compared to, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In it, the Karen Hill character, wife to Ray Liota’s mafioso Henry Hill, communicates with the audience through voice-over the lies she tells herself to rationalize her husband’s criminal lifestyle. “They were blue-collar guys,” and the only way for them to get that little extra was to “cut a couple corners,” she justifies over images of her husband stealing a 16-wheeler. Russell relies on voice-over in American Hustle the same way Scorsese does in Goodfellas, jumping from character to character, allowing each an opportunity to address the audience directly.

Like Anderson, whose adult-filmmakers fancied themselves artists, and Scorsese’s delusional criminals, Russell also uses juxtaposition to effectively express his characters’ delusions: Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso is an FBI agent desperate to make a name for himself. To this extent, the audience is given scenes of fast-talking power plays by the confident DiMaso as he navigates the Bureau and tries to steal Amy Adam’s seductive Sydney Prosser from under Rosenfeld. This image is undercut in the second act when Sydney calls DiMaso at home and finds him  having dinner with his fiance and overbearing mother. Both characters have their hair in curlers on each end of the phone, likening them both to Bale’s Rosenfeld and his type.

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Renner, whose Mayor Carmine Polito finds himself unwittingly in the middle of a plan he has entirely no true concept of, and Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife. All of the main cast is engaging and wonderful in their own way, giving each character life. This is largely to do with how the scenes were filmed: each scene shot in ten or so runs without calling cut. This rhythm is evident in an interaction between Sydney and DiMaso as he confesses his love to her.

The plot, which involves a con-man, his partner, and an FBI agent in his plan to expose corruption, takes the audience through various twists and turns, but Russell’s focus here is on these characters and the motivations, loves, and desires that make them all human. What keeps the plot moving is the mystery of which side of the line each character stands, just how sincere it is when they cross over those lines, and how their actions affect their relationships with the other characters in the world.

It’s a wonderfully-crafted work, from Russell’s directing, to the cast’s’ performances, to Judy Becker’s amazing time-period production design (she worked on Russell’s The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as well as on Brokeback Mountain, Garden State, and television’s Hannibal among many others). One of the risks the film runs is how prone it is to comparison to other 140 minute 1970 period pieces, which it almost seems to beg for with its pacing and use of Steadicam camera work.

One of the reasons it falls short compared to films like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights is that the characters never seem to find themselves in the same level of peril or danger as those two similarly operatic works, and as a result, American Hustle feels slightly low-stakes for such a grandiose presentation. The resolution of the plot feels more akin to Ridley Scott’s criminally underrated Matchstick Men, whose ending packed a huge punch, but came at the conclusion of a much smaller film.

American Hustle still remains a great piece of cinema that is rightfully generating a lot of “Oscar Buzz” for its cast and crew. More importantly, it raises a great deal of interesting points about the lies (big and small) we tell each other, and ourselves, to navigate the everyday hustle that is American life.

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