#29 — American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)
Rife with absurdity and energized by misguided bravado and crass capitalistic scheming, David O. Russell’s darkly comic rendering of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation would feel off if it didn’t have “American” in the title. This sort of conglomeration of criminality, opportunism, slippery morality, and rationalized hedonism could only be hatched in the land of the free, home of the brave, this place where delusion is a virtue as long as it is aligned with ruthless greed. The original title of the screenplay, as penned by Eric Warren Singer, was American Bullshit. When Russell took the acclaimed script and started reworking it to his own sensibility, the name was obviously going to need to change to find a place on theater marquees, but the rebranding to American Hustle isn’t a lamentable concession to social norms. American Hustle is better anyway, because the hustle truly never ends for the sort of hucksters that populate the story, whether they’re two-bit con artists or duly appointed law enforcement officials.
The event receiving the dramatization treatment unfolded as the venal nineteen-seventies evolved into the glossily empty nineteen-eighties, giving Russell plenty of garish trappings to work with, front disco collars to combustible microwaves. The Abscam sting involved luring elected representatives into a scenario where they took what they believed to be bribes from an Arabian company, with political largesse expected in return. In Russell’s rendering, this sordid business is presented with verve. Borrowing the shifting narrators and general rambunctious energy of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Russell depicts a milieu of anxious striving, of problem solving as the walls are closing in. Every character is splashing in flop sweat, desperately looking around for a hurled life preserver.
At the point he made American Hustle, Russell had completely rejuvenated his career with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Among other accolades, those two films resulted in seven nominations and three wins in Academy Awards acting categories. Performers came to Russell’s productions fully motivated to give their all, and American Hustle boasts an amazing set of performances. Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner are all terrific as schemers moving through this scramble of shaky ethics. The obvious standout, though, is Amy Adams. As Sydney Prosser, a woman whose situational duplicity is abetted by the men who can’t help falling for her, Adams has carbon-fiber strength and trembling vulnerability at the same time, the gears of her brain in perpetual motion as she surveys the emerging chaos around her and tries to figure out where her preferences and the most prudent strategic movies align. Sydney is casing her own life, and Adams shows the precise excitement of that fraught and exciting approach to getting through each treacherous day.
Russell’s film is enthralled by the nonsense of human interaction, particular the ways in which all the imperfections of various encounters mound into a trash heap of comic misery. American Hustle is about a particular event at particular time, but its escalating tension was found again in any number of fumbling maneuvers in search of quick dollars in the many years that followed. In the U.S., the type of scrambled aspiration depicted here never goes out of style.