American Hustle: Populist Entertainment

american_hustle_posterDavid O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is a blast, a vastly entertaining movie that bounces from scene to scene with tremendous energy, propelled by a terrific ensemble cast, made of actors who were allowed to improvise and give their juicy roles their all.

Russell has said that “American Hustle” is the third panel of a trilogy that began with “The Fighter” (which was Russell’s comeback after a long hiatus) and continued with “Silver Linings Handbook.”  The new movie is linked to the previous ones not only thematically and strategically but also in terms of its performers.  It’s as if the director combined the cast of “The Fighter” (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) with that of “Silver Linings Handbook” (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence).

Like Alexander Payne (who is his contemporary and also came out of the Sundance Film Festival in the 1990s), Russell is enamored of American movies of the 1970s, which are more character-driven than plot-oriented.  And like Payne, who in “Nebraska” pays homage to 1970s black-and-white classics such as Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” Russell is inspired by directors who made their impact in the 1970s, such as Scorsese (specifically “GoodFellas”) as well as new American films that are set in the 1970s, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult picture, “Boogie Nights.”

 

american_hustle_6_cooper_baleIn his last three films, Russell has taken a freewheeling approach in portraying middle class or lower middle class Americans who, due to being downtrodden or caught in less than desirable conditions, aim to get a slice of the Americans dream by using legitimate and illegitimate means. To achieve their goal they go through the extremes of reinventing and transforming themselves, physically as well as mentally.  Manipulation seems to be the dominant rule of the game, even if in the final account they end up deluding themselves.

Russell, like Tarantino may be too close to his characters, and in taking a non-judgmental strategy, emphasizing their humanity, he seems to be in love with all of them (Tarantino’s films often suffer from the same problem).

“Some of this actually happened,” reads the opening credit of the dynamic saga, which is set in New Jersey in 1978.  Though inspired by real events, the screenplay, co-penned by Russell and is zany, caustic, and loose, a tale various con artists (both petty criminals and FBI agents), who are trying to stretch their limits and outshine their rivals.

You could fault the film for being too long (137 minutes), too populist in approach, too manipulative in encouraging viewers not just relate but also love the characters, despite their flaws and faults.  And yet you cannot deny its entertainment values in relating a uniquely American tale about corruption, greed, and duplicity, but also love, loyalty, and deep belief in change and reinvention.

As most people know, the film is inspired by the Abscam Affair, a strange criminal investigation, in which FBI agents were asked to help ensnare various politicians and public officials (and office seekers).  Abscam became sort of a nickname, a short for Abdul Scam, because the operation involved two Arab sheikhs, both employees of the FBI, who wanted to profit from the newly established casino industry in Atlantic City, and in the process bribed several officials to gain operating licenses.

Christian Bale is barely recognizable as master conman Irving Rosenfeld, having gained 48 pounds (he proudly flaunts his paunchy bear belly) and sports a hairpiece that changes from scene to scene. Just watch him wrestling with his bald scalp in front of a hotel mirror, trying to apply an unruly comb-over, a comic bit of the high order.

Irving Rosenfeld is a sleazy dry cleaner with a sideline scamming people desperately in debt, with vain promises of loans.  He begins an affair with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) an ex-stripper from the Midwest who adopts a British accent and renames herself Lady Edith to join his adventure.

Bale is not alone in his outlandish appearance.   Doing justice to the 1970s fashions and styles, there are lots of hairdos and costumes in the picture, but they are not simply props, or gimmicks.  Instead, they are integrated into the personas that the characters play and their various agendas (which, like the wardrobes, keep changing).  Thus, Bradley Cooper is in pink hair curlers, Jennifer Lawrence shows a poufy blond ‘do.

Artifice is the name of the game in a movie that’s deliberately over the top, but not too deep in its commentary about the presumably “serious” issues it sets out to expose. Early on, Bale’s voice-over, borrowed from Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” suggests depth that the movie never reaches.

Nonetheless, when you get out of the theater, some scenes will linger in your memory.  In one film’s most joyous set-pieces (which is naturally used in the picture’s TV marketing campaign), Irving and Sydney stand next to a dry-clean carousel, staring straight into each other’s eyes, with clothes in plastic bags rotating around them, accentuating the oddball feel of a sweepingly zany romance, bound to become a classic scene in in the long-cherished history of Hollywood’s screwball comedy.