“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
-Sir Walter Scott
A con has three main stages to it: The bait, luring the victim (also known as the mark) towards the con man. The convincer, an event or fact that gives the scam the appearance of legitimacy. Finally, the sting, where the mark and their money part company. The confidence trick relies on misdirection. The con man stages a show just for you, and while you’re caught up in the unfolding action, behind the scenes there’s something else going on, taking you for everything you’ve got when you least expect it. Bear this in mind when watching American Hustle. It may help you keep track of what’s going on.
Things start out simply enough: fast talking con man and cheating husband Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner in crime, soul mate and impersonator of British aristocrats, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), run a lucrative little con, offering non-existent loans from Sydney’s fictitious British Lady for a very real $5000 fee. The one flaw in this perfect existence is Irv’s marriage, to “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate”, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence). But then it all goes wrong. To avoid jailtime for fraud, the two con artists are drawn into an FBI anti-corruption sting, led by idealistic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Their target: Mayor Carmine Polito, perhaps the only decent man in the whole stinking mess. But as the rich and powerful are drawn into the tangled web, things get complicated. Love, lust and greed intersect as everyone tries to get what they want, by means foul and fair. It will take all of Irv’s fast talk and flair to find his way out of the tangled web he has woven for himself.
If you’re to view this movie as a confidence trick, the stars are the bait. The movie is blindingly illuminated by all the stars in it (even Robert De Niro makes a brief appearance). Moreover, there are some stellar performances – in particular Renner’s good man in a bad world and Adams’ woman trapped in the web of her own deceit. But Jennifer Lawrence’s queen of the trailer trash outshines them all. Manipulative, passive-aggressive and with a mind so twisted you could use it as a corkscrew, the role gives Lawrence ample opportunity to chew the scenery. While to some extent we must credit the writers, Eric Singer and David O. Russell, for this creation, it is Lawrence who brings it to life. The movie’s most memorable moments come from her: I will never be able to hear “Live and Let Die” in the same way again after what Rosalyn does to it. Although I am not one of Lawrence’s adoring throng, I will admit my admiration for her performance.
After the bait comes the convincer. Great effort has gone into making American Hustle seem realistic, from the feet up. No effort has been spared in period detail. The hairstyles are delightfully repulsive. Of particular note is Irv’s very elaborate combover, and also the sight of DiMaso in haircurlers. Likewise, the clothing is hideously of its era – terrible suits, and some unbelievably low necklines. The period detail even extends to the studio logos, which look like they’re from the late 1970’s. The dialogue strives to be realistic, too. There’s no literary excesses in the spoken word, but a lot of repetition, incomplete sentences and fast talking, just like real life is meant to sound. And there’s s***loads of swearing. Then there’s the humour, the spectacle, the sense of raucous fun. Even Bale’s transformation from Batman to fat man for this film adds to the illusion of reality. All these serve as a convincer to the audience, making it all palatable in the lead up to the sting.
So, we’ve taken the bait, and been lulled into a false sense of security by the convincer. The time has come for the sting. You may not notice it beneath the garish spectacle, but its there, sidling up to you, sneaking into your brain while you’re distracted. There is a point to this movie. Several points, in fact. That is the sting. Under the big name stars and crazy style there are some unpalatable truths. That some of this actually happened; that such corruption is possible, and still goes on to this day. That everyone, on some level, cons others, and themselves. That the line between reality and illusion is far blurrier than we may think. That is the sting of American Hustle, the rotten smell masked by the sweetness.
So, should you see American Hustle? In short, yes. It does drag at times, and the fashion on display may cause nausea in oversensitive persons. But it is certainly entertaining, and gives you plenty to think about afterwards.
- Director: David O. Russell
- Writers: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
- Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
- 138 min, MA15+, general release