Movies don’t necessarily have to be coherent to succeed; they don’t have to scan and rhyme, perform any compulsory exercises or conform to anyone’s expectations. To succeed, they need - to invoke E.M. Forster’s famous imperative - “only connect.”
And so let us acknowledge right off that David O.
Russell’s audaciously junky American Hustle is a bit of mess, and that the less attention we pay to the confidence scams and schemes performed by central characters, the better off we’ll be. And the less we know about the actual Abscam - of which some of us have some vague memories - the more likely we may be to accept this whimsical tour of the late disco era.
Better to just pay your money and take the ride, to laugh and then be strangely moved by the odd-looking creatures Russell has assembled for his latest ensemble play. He worked with most of the principals before, with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro (who shows up here in what amounts to a cameo role) in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook and with Christian Bale and Amy Adams in 2010’s The Fighter, and all of his films have effectively employed ensemble casts. Whatever else you know about Russell - and a lot of people only know about his YouTube-uploaded, profanity-laced blowup on the set of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees in which he mercilessly castigated Lily Tomlin - you should know he has a gift for drawing nuanced performances from actors. Even Tomlin has said she’d gladly work with him again.
While I didn’t care much for SLP and thought The Fighter was but a well-made bio-pic curiously devoid of any auteurial style (I assumed that Russell, whose troubles in the mid-aughts have been well documented, was gifted with the job by Mark Wahlberg, who wanted to help a struggling friend), American Hustle marks the director’s return to the first rank of American filmmakers. He has made a genuinely funny, genuinely affecting movie about the pursuit of the American Dream and the ways we con ourselves.
Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is a striver, a flabby, toupee-wearing Long Island dry cleaner magnate with the appetites and nerves of a big operator - he’s cultured enough to appreciate Duke Ellington and to run a side business where he deals in stolen and/or forged art. While he’s a crook, he’s also a genuine romantic, and when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a fugitive from Nowswheresville who (like Gatsby) has come east to re-invent herself as a substantial person, he falls hard and fast. And soon she’s showing him possibilities - she slips into a British accent and becomes Lady Edith Greensly, with “banking contacts in London.”
The two embark on an unlikely scam that has them feeding off the desperation of other American hustlers -those who can’t obtain a loan through conventional means are invited to engage the services of Irving and Lady Edith who, for a non refundable fee, promise to use their contacts to secure the funds. While we can argue about whether anyone would be so gullible to fall for that sort of scam - I tend to think people would - the important thing is that their operation brings them into the orbit of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who, once he’s hooked his fish, puts them to work on implementing his own sting, in which seven members of Congress will be caught on videotape taking bribes.
But that’s not really the point of the movie - the point is the way these patently ridiculous characters eventually cohere into something like real people. Irving has a large and mostly good heart, which redeems his physical awkwardness and renders him sexy; Sydney is the archetypal American survivor, desperate to constantly remake herself;and Richie, who lives with his mom in a small apartment and rolls his hair in curlers to achieve disco debonair, is the C-student who tells himself he’s just as good as anyone else - why shouldn’t he be the hero and get the girl?
That’s not to mention a few of the year’s best turns, by Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s loose-cannon sex bomb of a wife, Jeremy Renner as a Jersey politician with the soul of a poet, and Louis C.K. as one of the few grown-ups in attendance. But there’s really too much here - a scene where Irving and Sydney make out in one of his dry cleaning establishments, as plastic-wrapped garments swirl around them; and one where Richie takes Sydney dancing at Studio 54- to try to cram into a review.
American Hustle is full of cinematic moments like those. They come one after another. Whether you can draw a flow chart that accurately depicts the various allegiances and reversals - whether the gaudy thing makes sense - seems beside the point.
American Hustle 89 Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Robert De Niro Director: David O. Russell Rating: R for language, sexual content and violence Running time: 138 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 12/20/2013
Print Headline: A scam for all seasons/American Hustle gives audience a patently ridiculous, but endearing, history lesson