THE (WELL DRAWN) characters in David O Russell’s magnificent “American Hustle” live in an absurdist universe where, in their very twenty first century world, the currency of worth lies in the extent of your money, power and ambition. And what glues these three, let’s call them bankerly, traits together is your skill as a con man: your ability to deceive, fool, lie and, as the film title suggests, “hustle”. There are strong elements of Absurdist Theatre in Russell’s movie, where the moral anchors of honesty, loyalty, friendship and love are largely absent; and the individuals have to seek out their own pathways without, as it were, a clear sense of meaning or a compass to act as a guide. Russell suggests that when people have to fall back purely upon their own character traits, without the shaping influences of either the law or a moral code, danger lurks around every plot turn.
The movie is a hoot: it begins with an act that pretty much defines what we’re about to experience over the next few hours: Irving Rosenfeld (a round-faced, blading, paunchy Christian Bale), who is probably the most decent person in the film, is glueing a piece of a wig to his head, so that his elaborate, Trump-esque comb over can somehow appear genuine. Rosenfeld is re-crafting his, now fake, appearance to be able to better deceive those easily fooled folks from whom he makes his living.
In a town where what matters is not who you are, but how you appear (and how is this ‘mere’ fiction?), hairstyles are a signature statement: Rosenfeld’s trashy Jersey-girl wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), like Bradley Cooper’s sleazily ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, maintains a routine of daily hair curling, as if that’ll somehow mask their double-dealing ways. Mayor Carmine (Jeremy Renner) presents us a persona as elaborately coiffured as his pompadour; seductress Sydney (Amy Adams in the role of her career) frizzes her hair, as if that could ever take anyone’s eyes away from her frequently almost bared breasts; and FBI chief Anthony (Allseandro Nivola) has a greed-is-good slick back to ensure that all who are around him recognize his power; and then of course there’s the most elaborate style of all – Rosenfeld’s comb over.
Deception is all: deception of others, or, perhaps Russell may even be suggesting, there’s a self-deception involved that may even be something that’s uniquely “American”. If European Absurdist theatre mapped out a world without a moral compass, in the US, meet the new post-modern world: the American Hustle.
The story is built loosely (as the opening credits warn, “some of this actually happened”) around the three central characters. And as is typical of Russell’s movies, the –elaborate- plot that ensues is all character-driven: every piece of crap that these characters do, results in ever more labyrinthine twists and turns.
Rosenfeld (Bale), an owner of a chain of dry cleaning outlets, is also a small time hustler, given to fleecing money from gullible, greedy fools. He’s been on the hustle since he was a kid, when, in order to drum up business for his dad’s glass company, he’d break the windows of shop owners. He meets and (don’t mind that he’s married – to Jennifer Lawrence’s character) falls heavily for femme fatale, Sydney (Adams), a small-time ex-stripper in search of re-invention. She successfully re-invents herself as a seductive English heiress so that the caliber of their, now joint, hustles can be enhanced. Their success leads them straight into the hands of the law: Ritchie (Cooper), a man with a fiancée who lives at home with his mother, but whose overweening ambition leads him into the loins of Sydney and into the construction of an elaborate, barely legal, scheme of entrapment (this is the bit that ‘actually happened”) called Abscam.
In the story that follows, no-one is spared.
Russell is brilliant in his ability to craft a story that allows us to be aware of both the black, broad-scale nastiness and amorality of almost all of the characters, as well as the greyer areas where, despite themselves, genuine love does flower and somehow, decency and nobility does emerge.
He also offers a nicely delicate touch that unsettles viewers by shifting the tonal values of the film from whacky comedy to terse, taut drama, all underscored by a marvelous sound-track. Suddenly the music of an era have become the music of an era…of cons, lies and videotapes.