Ever witness a lie so big even the person telling it gets fooled? Such is the case in American Hustle. Every politician, FBI agent, con artist and even director David O. Russell himself is out for trickery. Russell’s highly stylized retelling of a sting operation that changed the procedures for FBI undercover operations has little interest in political dissent. Nor does it have much interest in narrative. Instead, at the heart of American Hustle is a character study that is mostly entertaining throughout, but empty on ambition.
The historical basis of American Hustle’s plot began in 1978, when the FBI created a sting operation that resulted in the conviction of one senator, six congressmen, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and more than a dozen other criminals and corrupt officials. Code named Abscam, a contraction of “Arab scam”, the sting was as virtuous as its name implies.
The FBI employed con artist Melvin Weinberg, who was facing a prison sentence at the time, to help create the fake Arabian company “Abdul Enterprise”. Weinberg and the FBI then invented a story for the company. They convinced their targets the company was worth millions of dollars and was seeking private immigration bills and building permits and licenses for casinos in Atlantic City in exchange for money. The FBI set up the exchanges and, for the first time in American history, secretly videotaped government officials taking bribes.
The operation ended with controversy. Congress held a series of hearings on the ethics behind the operation, which sparked questions from the public. Was Weinberg given too much freedom in the operation? Was the FBI out for revenge due to previous Congressional hearing on FBI abuses? Were the politicians tricked into the criminal situations and were unlikely to commit the crimes otherwise?
Whatever the answer may be, Russell doesn’t care.
Rusell decided to toy around with the truth behind Abscam. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfield, the fictional counterpart to Weinberg. The movie opens with an out-of-shape Rosenfield applying a comb over, a scene that lasts for one and a half minutes. But what may be more fascinating than seeing a grown man go through so much effort to fix himself is Bale’s bodily transformation. It’s impossible not to think, “Hey, wasn’t that fat guy Batman?”
Rosenfield then enters a gaudy wallpapered hotel room, where FBI agent Richard DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, barges in with quarrelsome words. He accuses Rosenfield of accusing him of screwing up the operation. Both men’s love interest, Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, referees the argument. Her presence is explicit. With breasts that defy the laws of gravity (take a look at her ridiculous outfit in the poster), she plays around with both men’s emotions.
In a heavily Bronx-accented voice-over, which is sometimes strenuous to listen to, Rosenfield describes his childhood and what motivated him to become a con-artist. The narrative borrows from familiar crime-story tropes and the voice-over sounds too much like something Scorsese would use.
Still using the voice-over, Rosenfield describes how he met Prosser and got her involved in a fraudulent loan business. After a few successful years, they’re caught by DiMaso, who disguises himself as a client. DiMaso offers them a deal: use their talent to catch a few criminals, and avoid a prison sentence. However, DiMaso’s plans don’t stop there. They become bigger and soon they’re conspiring to catch the mayor of Camden taking money in a kickback.
Rosenfield’s wife, Rosalyn, complicates the operation. Played expertly by Jennifer Lawrence, Rosalyn is unstable, lighting fires and sticking her nose in Irving’s plans. Rosenfield is obliged to stay with her for the benefit of his loved adopted son.
Robert De Niro, who further brings up the image of Scorsese, has a cameo as a mobster. After a brief flashback that describes how he once killed a man in the middle of the street, I realized too much of the movie consists of people arguing in small rooms. For a brief instant, a gun goes off and I witness the end of somebody’s life. It's the first piece of interesting movement in the film. Later on there's another scene that sticks out, a montage where the characters move and dance to "Live and Let Die". As fast and fun as the dialogue is, it still leaves desire for more of this action.
Although the movie is often labeled as a comedy, the laughter often lasts only a split-second. For example, the sheikh Rosenfield hires to represent “Abdul Enterprise” is actually Mexican and did the aluminum siding on his house. This had the potential to be a hilarious gag. However, the joke is never delivered properly and feels thrown in. They get themselves caught in troubled situations because of this lie, but it’s never a hilarious one.
Although American Hustle does not excel in narrative, action or comedy, it does excel in performances and character development. Every character wants to be anything other than who they are, chasing wild dreams and afraid to tell the truth. To compliment this, the performances are spontaneous and unpredictable. Figuring out what truths are being told and which are being stretched is part of the fun of watching American Hustle. The dialogue is rich and the improvisation works to reveal the layers to each character’s identity. Delusions of grandeur, cover-ups and reinventions: this movie has fascinating characters.
Overall, American Hustle is fun to watch, but seems afraid to develop anything beyond characters.