The Fast, the Furious, and the Scorsesean
“Some of this actually happened.”
That’s it for American Hustle’s claim to reality. Although based on ABSCAM, the FBI’s sting operation in the ’70s that led to the indictment of a plethora of government officials, the movie doesn’t pretend to be factually indelible. For a film that was originally titled “American Bulls**t” and chronicles a tale of deceit involving con artists, scheming FBI and the New Jersey mob, director David O. Russell’s newest movie is upfront about its status as fiction. Forget “based on a true story” and its many derivations. From the get-go, American Hustle informs us of its refusal to be a history lesson. It’s tabloid history, told through the filter of period nostalgia and Russell’s larger-than-life love for the rich, pulpy material. In its irreverence, the film’s opening statement is brash and exhilarating. In its tone of incredulity, it reflects the perspective of one sitting in the audience, seducing us into the movie’s story by preemptively identifying with our surprise, disbelief, and wanton exuberance. Before the story proper has even begun, we’re already hooked on the promise of guilty escape into a world almost our own, a version of history jacked up on the juices of pure cinema.
And that is why the movie’s opening shots are so surprising. Devoid of music in a film all about channeling the hopping ’70s music scene, these first images were shot in soft tones that produce a candid, intimate feel. The camera watches silently as an overweight Christian Bale plasters a clump of hair pathetically onto his balding scalp to create the illusion of an authentic combover. We find out later in the film that Bale plays Irving Rosenfield, a self-made con man with a charismatic flair that attracts dozens of unsuspecting clients and the love of gorgeous partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The man before us is not that man. With this opening, the film brings us behind-the-scenes to the sad, painful place where lies are spun and images are fabricated. In doing so, the movie does end up making a claim to reality, but not one steeped in hard and fast facts. American Hustle champions the reality of humanity in all its crazy highs and ugly lows, as well as the reality of the cinematic experience that can convey all of that to us in a way textbook history cannot.
The ensuing whirlwind of a movie is feverishly alive. For every gallon of glitz, Russell throws in a quart of melodrama, and the resulting concoction guns for the stars. Things flash and shine both on the surface and on the level of emotion. The costumes are fabulously elaborate, spanning gaudy suits, plunging necklines, plumy hairdos and an array of other period accessories inflated to nearly caricatural extremes. There are hysterical shouting matches, stretches of drunken debauchery, rampant sexual tension, shady political dealings and even shadier double crosses. The dialogue whips along, quick and sassy, as does the camera, circling around the characters as they enter the arena of deception from which there is no escaping unscathed. The entire ordeal is wild yet sobering, hilarious but tragic, at times nerve-wracking and at others tenderly intimate. Occasionally, there is a mismatch between the movie’s swagger and the quality of its script that suggests overconfidence. But these moments are rare, and the film, never boring and always moving, continues to pull us through its sensational story.
The main source of the movie’s magnetism is its characters and the actors who play them. With A-list performers pulled straight from Russell’s past two films, the cast of American Hustle seems at first glance to be more of an auteurist stunt than an honest attempt at matching actor with character, but everyone delivers. There is a desperate quality to the acting here that skirts the line between genius and absurdity. It translates into boldness, and the performances are electrifying. Amy Adams is uncharacteristic as the seductive femme fatale, but she wears the role with a confidence and depth that suggests otherwise. Bradley Cooper reconfigures his nervous energy from Silver Linings Playbook into an equally edgy – and significantly funnier – performance as the FBI agent spearheading ABSCAM. Jeremy Renner, though slightly outdone by his fellow cast members, nonetheless captures the self-righteous zeal of a populist mayor who will do anything for his constituents.
But it is Bale and Jennifer Lawrence who are especially striking. Playing the unhappy members of a shallow marriage, the two resemble Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone in Martin Scorsese’s Casino down to Bale’s portly physique and Lawrence’s feisty material-girl persona. Both Bale and especially Lawrence are fantastic in their roles, but their likeness to the two leads in the 1995 mob picture encapsulates American Hustle’s greatest weakness. The film is, quite simply, too Scorsese. For most movies, this would be a compliment of the highest order, but for Russell, a filmmaker whose ambition warrants its own unique style, being complimented isn’t enough. He has to stand apart from his predecessors, and American Hustle ultimately doesn’t do that, at least not enough. Consider the way in which the film uses montage and voiceover to explain complicated plot details, freeze frames to introduce new characters, and tracking shots to visually orient us in the filmic space. It glorifies criminal activity without downplaying its consequences, boasts a classic rock soundtrack, spotlights passionate male characters driven by libido and pride, and even includes a plot thread involving the mob and a cameo by DeNiro himself. All of it is trademark Scorsese, and even despite the film’s many moments of brilliance, this sense of familiarity made it difficult for me to embrace the film as more than a virtuoso exercise in imitation.
All this talk of mimicry brings to mind a scene from American Hustle in which Irving is teaching Cooper’s FBI agent the tricks of the con artist’s trade. Pointing to a counterfeit Rembrandt painting, Irving remarks, “The guy who made it was so good that it’s real to everybody.” That guy could be Russell, and the painting American Hustle. For although the film exudes another director’s style, the assurance and skill with which it pulls it off allows the movie to appropriate this style as its own. And when we really get down to it, isn’t art itself an act of imitation, a series of homages and inspired creations revolving around the same recycled themes that help us define our humanity? Yes, Russell could definitely have borrowed less from Scorsese, but in the end, the Scorsese formula works, and so does American Hustle. A movie this good, this alive, and this attune to the full spectrum of human experience, both the characters’ and ours, can’t be anything but real.