As the year end winds down, movie studios amp up their output of features designed to delight the awards crowd. One of those pictures is American Hustle, David O. Russell‘s fictionalization of the “ABSCAM” operation in the late seventies.
Unlike most “based on a true story” movies, where most of the parts are true, Russell decides to play fast and loose from the opening title. The film tells us “some of these things really happened”, then fades to black. American Hustle starts off an a hotel room, featuring characters played by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Bradley Cooper.
Eventually, it is revealed that all of these people will be central to an operation within the movie. Until then, we’re given a lot of backstory. Russell’s first act revolves around the characters played by Bale and Adams. Meeting at a winter pool party in Long Island, they fall in love and start a small but successful con involving insurance fraud. One of the biggest problems with this is that Russell draws out the courtship phase between Adams and Bale. He could have cut it down while keeping a dancing scene to emphasize his point.
It’s at this time that their operation, run out of a dry cleaner owned by Bale, becomes uncovered by an FBI agent, portrayed by Bradley Cooper. As in Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell brings out another stellar performance from the usually comic Cooper. In short, he makes Adams and Bale cooperate and bring in bigger names to make a case.
While they start off small, it evolves to include the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, portrayed by Jeremy Renner. Knowing that the mayor wants to build casinos, Bale and Cooper hatch up a scheme where a “sheikh” will give money to investors, including Renner. The mayor doesn’t fall for it, but this leads to a bigger bust of Congressmen and Senators, who try to expedite the sheikh’s citizenship.
Ultimately, they never get what they really want, and instead Bradley Cooper’s character is duped by Adams and Bale at a crucial stage in trying to catch a mobster who had been working with Renner. Cons, large and small, act as the backdrop for the movies’ relationships.
Russell is at his finest in these situations, depicting the tumultuous events between people looking for love or guidance amongst peer groups. Christian Bale is swept off his feet by Amy Adams, but he still has a wife at home, played magnificently by Jennifer Lawrence. Serving mostly as comic relief, Lawrence serves to check every half-baked idea Bale might have. His relationship with her doesn’t survive, though it’s because they come to the understanding their is nothing real about it.
Bale’s relationship with Adams and their actions with Bradley Cooper serve as incredible monuments to consequence. Adams largely thinks she has something with Bale, though she finds more substance with Cooper. Unlike most love triangles, it’s not a will she-won’t she event. Adams’ trust in Bale brings about an important turn of events near the end of the movie, showing Cooper the results of his ways.
Jeremy Renner’s most important connection is with Christian Bale. Originally designed to be a mark, Renner forms a bond with the con man played by Bale. As such, the tenants of the operation begin to tug at the heart of Bale, who can’t stand to see punishment for Renner. He realizes that as much as he tries, he’s going to lose what he has with Renner.
The most interesting and perhaps most important relationship is between Bradley Cooper and his boss, portrayed by Louis C.K. Known for his comedy, C.K. spends most of the movie in a straight role, challenging Cooper. A running interaction between Louis C.K. and Bradley Cooper involves the professional comedian trying to tell the story of his dad ice fishing. Every time, Cooper tries to rush the moral, which he always gets wrong. The audience never gets the end of the story, which is the point. Both in the movie and in Cooper’s operation, the arc continues to push forward despite needing to let the story tell itself.
American Hustle asks throughout, what is real, in our lives and our relationships? We learn that we can only take what we perceive and not necessarily what is the truth. David O. Russell commands great performances from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner to explore this topic, while he tries his best with Christian Bale, who sometimes morphs into a comic characterization of a Long Islander. Like many newer films, American Hustle definitely suffers from ignoring the economy of story in favor of a few extra minutes of exposition. Russell’s attempt to capture the era never feels too over-the-top, letting the scenery and music act as guides. Come awards season, expect nods for many of the actors as well as Best Director and Best Picture.