David O’Russell is perhaps one of the most curious directors working in Hollywood. Hanging on the periphery of celebrity status since “Three Kings” in 1999, O’Russell sprang into the spotlight with “The Fighter”, a grim look into the violent life of a Lowell boxer. He returned to critical acclaim again two years later with “Silver Linings Playbook”, a hopeful romantic comedy that looks in-depth at the trials of mental illness. And now, combining the two casts for one star-studded film, he presents “American Hustle”, where cheap con men and delusional cops run away from the hideous truths hiding in their lives.
“Hustle” almost feels like the final story in a tragic trilogy, where the grit from the former and the laughs from the latter come together in a dangerously beautiful tribute to the brash, bullish, and slightly batty American spirit of resilience.
Set in New York City in the end of the 1970’s, “American Hustle” follows Irving Rosenfield, played by Christian Bale, as he moves from being a small-time con-man into an elaborate police operation targeting political corruption. Christian Bale pulls off another chameleon performance; the man’s ability to drop half his weight for his role in “The Fighter” and then throw on a comical beer gut for “Hustle” is uncanny. His portrayal of the defeated, unappealing, anti-suave, and yet vividly human Rosenfield is the beating heart of this film. Rosenfield soon finds himself in the amorous arms of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who enchants as his lover and as a business associate. But when a deal goes awry and they’re picked up by Richie Dimaso (Bradley Cooper), Rosenfield and Prosser are forced into an elaborate FBI sting operation to pin charges of corruption on high level politicians. As Dimaso’s ambition gets ahead of him, the story twists and careens around a fake Arab Sheikh, a NYC mayor (Jeremy Renner), and a shadowy representative from the Mafia underworld, naturally played by Robert Deniro. The story is of quintessential 1970’s America, dazzling in gaudy colors and jewelry, melting with surface level bravado and frantic ambition.
O’Russell joins a new wave of critical filmmakers that draw from this colorful, almost mocking representation of the cliched American lifestyle. Like Ben Affleck’s “Argo”, Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”, and even in a way the Coen Brother’s “No Country for Old Men”, David O’Russell saturates real people with outlandish situations, testing them to within an inch of their limit. And perhaps it is this that makes O’Russell one of the most charming moviemakers of the last four years: he is dedicated to showing real, organic characters, no matter how ridiculous, misguided, or disenchanting they may be. In an interview with Elvis Mitchell, O’Russell comments on how “Their world is as compelling to me as the story. Who they are in the house… what they’re listening to, what they’re eating… That’s what puts their feet on the floor everyday.” It is this inner ear that listens to and develops such vibrant and engaging characters. No matter how ditzy and naive Rosenfield’s wife is, played by the darling of Hollywood Jennifer Lawrence, we still feel for her, we still understand her and we can see exactly where her blindness comes from. It is in Christian Bale’s careful attention to a figure so shabby and downtrodden that we see a human vanity, a need to feel somehow empowered given circumstances spiraling far out of control. We recognize the walls closing in as Richie tries to make a name for himself from the kitchen of his mother’s grimy apartment.
“American Hustle” takes the vibrant and over-the-top Seventies era and turns it upside down, showing its doubts and its self-consciousness. We don’t know if there’s a hero or a villain, if there’s a right thing to do or a wrong thing to do, if we want any of the characters to “win.” All we know is each character is desperately aching to be greater than their situation allows. But isn’t that the work of life? Sometimes films have a way of leaving us too satisfied, too settled in our seats, too proud of the condition of the human spirit. O’Russell doesn’t offer us that sort of comfort. He celebrates it in all its frailty, in all its vulnerability.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not we’re really meant to love these pitifully human characters. But maybe, just like the perfume Rosenfield’s wife is so taken by, “you can’t stop smelling it even when there’s something sour in it, you can’t get enough of it.”