Bad Hair and Big Dreams: the Brilliance of American Hustle

The movie American Hustle opens with the cheeky assurance that “some of this actually happened.” Inspired by the Arab Scam sting operation set up by the FBI in 1978, American Hustle is less preoccupied with showing the facts than depicting an era. Rather than insisting that the movie was based on a true story, this opening placard puts the events of the movie firmly into a sort of mirror reality. Director David O. Russell is showing the audience up front that it’s not important if the events are true to life: what really matters are the characters.

Russell has made a career of directing films with ensemble casts, showing off the nature of relationships with dark comedy and pathos. American Hustle combines actors from his two most well-known movies: Amy Adams and Christian Bale from The Fighter, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook. With the welcome addition of Jeremy Renner, these actors portray the excess and drama of the late 1970s.

As the film features some of the finest actors of our time, each character portrayal is nothing short of brilliant. Christian Bale’s nuanced performance as con man Irving Rosenfeld is augmented by the physical transformation of the actor. In this film, Batman has a bad hairpiece, a beer belly, and a perfectly awful Bronx accent. But Irving carries himself with an attractive confidence, one that catches the attention of Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams in her darkest role to date. Sydney is beautiful and intelligent, Irving’s equal. She is not only his mistress but his partner in crime. At times in the film, Sydney seems to be the real puppet master of the operation, twitching the strings of each character and of the audience. Adams is perfection in this role, showing Sydney’s fragility beneath her beautiful, scheming exterior.

The mirror opposite of calculating Sydney is Irving’s irresponsible and sometimes deranged wife, Rosalyn. Jennifer Lawrence truly proved in the past few years that she is capable of playing in the big leagues, and her portrayal of Rosalyn cements her position as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Rosalyn is hotheaded and possessive of her husband, disrupting his schemes with careless abandon. Her booze-driven ploys for attention put her in the crosshairs of an operation Irving is undergoing with the FBI. Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, is the federal agent who has blackmailed Irving and Sydney into helping him catch corrupt politicians. Where Bale is subtle, Cooper is delightfully over-the-top, playing Richie with a manic fervor that somehow works beautifully. Richie uses Irving to get to Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito, the corrupt-yet-kindly mayor of Atlantic City. All of these characters form an odd sort of team, with dark intentions hiding under screwball comedy.

The scenery is quite important in American Hustle; the time period in which the movie is set is almost a main character in itself. Each character’s hairstyle is perfectly coiffed, from Cooper’s corkscrew curls to Bale’s elaborate comb over. New York City is still grimy and owned by con men, with decades-old cars racing by. The phenomenal soundtrack is a particularly effective tool to ground the film, presenting the music of days gone by. Russell uses this background to portray the dark mirror image of the American dream. The self-made men (and women) use crime and corruption to leverage themselves upward. And if you think you’re any different, you’re conning yourself.

The ending is perhaps a bit too neat, wrapping up every loose end and giving every character the results they deserve. But the tidy resolution does not detract from the film’s meaning. It is a snapshot of the dark side of humanity, of America. Russell’s brilliant direction and his talented cast reveal throughout American Hustle the lengths people will go for love and for survival. Some of this actually happened, but all of it is true.