(SPOILERS AHOY! Wait, does this mean that I’m nautically sensual? Eh, lighten up Frances!)
David O. Russell’s sprawling tale of the late 70’s FBI Abscam operation prominently features Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over its opening credits. And what other ‘70s musical act would be more appropriate for these proceedings than the Dan, those masterful purveyors of acid-drenched cynicism wrapped in smooth, seductive jazz rock? So what else can Messers Fagen and Becker tell us about the inner workings of HUSTLE’s dedicated scammers? Well kids, if you want some fun, see what you never have seen. Take off your cheaters and sit right down. Start the projection machine.
BUT LOOK AT WHAT YOU WEAR
AND THE WAY YOU CUT YOUR HAIR
Irving Rosenfeld’s combover is a character unto itself. The first shot of the film is of Christian Bale’s authentically bloated belly, but it’s directly followed by a lovingly detailed single shot of just how that Rosenfeld faux do is maintained (and boy, can spirit gum go a long way in maintaining fading male potency.) In a film with scams of all stripes, it’s the most benign of falsehoods, but one that sets the tone for the higher stakes games soon to be played, which will be fuelled by the same sense of pure ego stroking. And following his mirror time, Bale’s next move is a confrontation with Bradley Cooper’s permed up peacock federal agent Richie Di Maso, during which he accuses him of raiding his polyester laden closet.
Is there a modern major screen star more willing to physically commit themselves to a role than Bale? He’s gone from insanely buff in AMERICAN PSYCHO to dangerously emaciated in THE MACHINIST to ruggedly bulky in BATMAN BEGINS. But he’s truly abandoned any sense of aesthetic ego in his two collaborations with Russell; the rail thin, crackhead physique and receding hairline of THE FIGHTER’S Dicky Eklund and the indulgent bloat of Irving Rosenfeld are mirror images of two men consumed by their own vice. Bale’s total immersion extends into his subtle mannerisms and lumbering physical gait. Despite an Oscar win for THE FIGHTER, he’s still not recognized enough for the idiosyncratic career he’s forged; maybe the end of his Batman days will rectify that problem.
THEY FILMED THE WHOLE CHARADE
YOU CALL ME A FOOL, YOU SAY IT’S A CRAZY SCHEME
THIS ONE’S FOR REAL, I ALREADY BOUGHT THE DREAM
SO USELESS TO ASK ME WHY, THROW A KISS AND SAY GOODBYE
I’LL MAKE IT THIS TIME, I’M READY TO CROSS THE LINE.
And speaking of male heartthrobs willing to subvert their matinee idol looks….there’s much to commend about Bradley Cooper’s work with Russell in this film and last year’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. His live wire turn as the bipolar Pat Solitano in that film exploded the easygoing stud image that Hollywood had cultivated in most his post-HANGOVER career. He’s ostensibly the hero of the opening salvo of HUSTLE, but as the story progresses the manic obsessive vampire within him beings to emerge. As Richie’s wild-eyed hubris metastasizes, Cooper displays a feral quality that’s both absurd and frightening. At heart, he’s a mediocre cop who’s too driven by Eliot Ness fantasies to realize how badly he bungles parts of the investigation; check out the giddy excitement that he can’t conceal as he’s about to bust Irving and Sydney at the beginning of the film, that same leering grin coming to the forefront again at the film’s climax when he’s about to score the most temporary of major validations by recording mob lawyer Alfonse Simone’s over the top admission of criminal guilt. Early in the film, as their loan shark scheme begins to reach fruition, Irving and Sydney marvel at how hard marks will push against people who tell them no. It’s also an accurate assessment of what (aside from swarthy good looks) is really Richie’s only strength as a cop: his stubborn sense of determination in the face of rejection.
UNHAND THAT GUN BEGONE
THERE’S NO ONE TO FIRE UPON
IF HE’S HOLDING IT HIGH
HE’S TELLING A LIE
(“Only a Fool Would Say That”)
In truth, Richie’s foremost enemy is his boss Stoddard Thorsen, who, in another of the film’s sly reversals, seems to be the archetypical pencil pushing bureaucrat, but who’s later proven to be a much needed voice of pragmatism in a New York FBI office hellbent on rewarding preening egomaniacs like Richie and US Prosecutor Anthony Amado (Allesandro Nivola). And who better to play Thorsen than that modern saint of maligned, schlubby masculinity, Louis C.K. His befuddlement when Richie phone whips him and stares him down in a pistol packed standoff (“Come one, that’s not you” Richie patronizingly tries to reassure Stoddard, even though Richie himself is a far cry from the gunslinger persona he envisions for himself) is a thing of beauty. And Russell once again expertly manipulates audience expectations during Richie’s post-Simone busting celebration, C.K. serving as the impotent butt of the joke in a scene that’s genuinely funny while also serving as a savage indictment of Amado’s headline chasing boy’s club (who’ve inadvertently stumbled into a fake mob attorney and a $2 million transfer into the account of the very scam artists who they’re employing.)
BUT YOU DON’T SEEM TO UNDERSTAND
WE GOT HEAVY ROLLERS
I THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
TRY AGAIN TOMORROW
There’s one approximation of an innocent in the constellation of double dealing wannabes and shysters: Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. AMERICAN HUSTLE treats Abscam as the great macguffin at the heart of a story about egos and broken dreams, but Carmine is the story’s true believer, striving to improve the lives of his largely beaten down black and Puerto Rican constituency and to resurrect Atlantic City the money of a faux shiek. His political survival depends on paying tribute to the local mob dons, but in the film’s ethically gray world, it’s perhaps one of the smallest offenses. As he heads off to reduced jailtime at the film’s conclusion, he’s a shamed good man; in voiceover, Irving testifies that the loss of Carmine’s friendship still haunts him, but he gets to walk away with Sydney at the end of the story.
I DETECT THE EL SUPREMO
FROM THE ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS
(“Show Biz Kids”)
At the film’s 2/3 mark, it realizes that it needs to up the ante and muddy the con. So bring on Meyer Lanksy’s muscle, the Miami connection Victor Tellegio. And bring on Robert De Niro, in an unbilled turn as the mob heavy who nearly upsets Abscam’s fragile foundation. Victor’s emphasis on getting Michael Pena’s faux shiek American citizenry in order to speed his acquisition of a gaming license makes you wonder if he crossed paths with Ace Rothstein years before. And there’s a definite frisson in the stareoff between De Niro and Bale at the backroom meeting, two actors renowned for a commitment to abusing their good looks for film silently acknowledging one another.
WHEN YOU’RE BORN TO PLAY THE FOOL
AND YOU’VE SEEN ALL THE WESTERN MOVIES
WOE TO THE ONE WHO DOES YOU WRONG
(“With a Gun”)
Jennifer Lawrence’s presence as the gradually vengeful Rosalyn is one of the knottier aspects of AMERICAN HUSTLE. Her manic intensity opposite Cooper in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK produced genuine sparks, but those two were clearly playing the misfit kids in an otherwise straight world. Russell populates HUSTLE with lead characters who are always straddling the line between drama and absurdity, which too often makes Rosalyn stick out as a cartoonish figure. There’s a difference between playing an annoying character and just hamming it up. She’s given a few nice moments of levity, but her comic relief duties soon wear thin.
YES, I’M CASHING IN THIS TEN CENT LIFE FOR ANOTHER ONE
(“Night by Night”)
Everyone in the film feels like they’re living a lie, that they’ll do anything it takes to transform themselves, sometimes totally unaware of the irony of the new lies they’re embracing. Irving admires Sydney for her willingness to transcend her seedy past as a stripper (which, she tells herself and the audience in voiceover, could sorta be sexy) by scamming her way into his life, while also starting himself on his road to ruin as a young man driven by the disappointment with his father’s life. Rosalyn detests Irving’s crooked ways, still clings to the fantasy of an idealized marriage, but then later latches onto Jack Huston (mob connections and all) as her knight in shining armor. Richie holds aspirations of being New York’s undercover crusader, but he feels trapped by his pedestrian home life with his mother and fiancée. But his frustration with the seeming limitations of that life thrust him headlong into the manufactured allure of Sydney’s Edith Greensly persona, a front that she fully embraces to hide from her frustrations with Irving’s romantically ambivalent ways.
And how could an examination of AMERICAN HUSTLE be complete without lauding Amy Adams, who gives a gives a seductive, bravura turn as Sydney Prosser? It’s a much more challenging role than Lawrence’s Rosalyn, but it ultimately ends up being more rewarding. Between this film and THE MASTER, she’s shown incredible range, deftly manipulating her wholesome beauty and injecting a sharp sense of cutthroat self-preservation into it. Whether staring into Joaquin Phoenix’s/the camera’s eye while seducing him/us deeper into The Cause or subtly oscillating between her American and British accents as she lays out her plans to Irving, she’s a serpentine presence, exuding sex appeal and menace in equal measures.
TONIGHT WHEN I CHASE THE DRAGON
THE WATER WILL CHANGE TO CHERRY WINE
AND THE SILVER WILL CHANGE TO GOLD
TIME OUT OF MIND
(“Time Out of Mind”)