Faith & Film: American Hustle

After two straight years of Oscar-winning films (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), director David O. Russell is on a roll. Not only that, he has done what no director in decades has done: developed his own stock company of actors. His eagerly awaited new movie “American Hustle” brings together four actors from his previous films: Oscar winners Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, and nominees Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper.

“American Hustle” tells a story very loosely based on a 1978 sting called Abscam. At the beginning of the movie, we are told that “some of these events actually happened!” In the complicated plot, Bale is a con artist named Irving who meets and begins to work with the beautiful Sydney (Adams). In their scams, Sydney, from Albuquerque, uses an English accent and pretends to be a woman known as Lady Edith. Even though Irving and Sydney become romantically involved, Irving is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence). However, we learn that Irving does not love Rosalyn. He stays with her for the sake of her son whom Irving legally adopted and loves as his own.

The law eventually catches up with Irving and Sydney in the guise of Richie, an FBI agent (Cooper). Richie agrees to make a deal with Irving and Sydney: If they work with him to catch other crooks they will not have to serve time. Reluctantly, Irving and Sydney agree.

The target of Richie’s next scam is Carmine Polito, (Jeremy Renner) Mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Carmine wants to return Atlantic City to its glory days by bringing in casinos. He sees this as a way to bring jobs to New Jersey. Along the way, there are several under the table deals involving the mob and a fake sheik from Saudi Arabia.

Confused? One of the problems with the film is the overly complicated plot. It’s difficult to keep up with the plot and all the characters. I believe that Russell purposely complicates things in order to keep the audience off guard. In the middle of all this, Richie falls for Sydney. Meanwhile, both Sydney and Rosalyn meet each other at a dinner for Carmine; the two stare daggers at each other. The tension mounts. Yet the audience begins to wonder: What is going on? Who’s conning who?

The large cast is great. All four leads deserve Oscar nominations again. Bale, who lost weight for The Fighter, gained weight for his role as Irving. Bradley is manic and demanding, driving his boss (the comic actor Louis C.K.) crazy. But the two lead actresses are the ones who really shine: the always great Adams as the beautiful con artist in her very revealing costumes and Lawrence as the jealous wife. The high point of the movie is a furious Rosalyn dusting the house while singing along to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” in a rage. On more than one occasion, she seems determined to tear the house down!

Russell steers his cast and crew through many large dinners, meetings with FBI agents, gangsters and politicians. His style at these large events reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” in which the camera weaves in and out of huge set pieces, beautifully capturing all the characters and action. Potential viewers may note that, as with Scorsese’s gangster films, there is nonstop profanity throughout “American Hustle,” but, thankfully, little violence.

As much as I enjoyed watching the excellent cast sinking their teeth into meaty roles, I felt let down by “American Hustle.” Not only was the plot was overly complex, I wasn’t sure what really happened at the end. But my primary disappointment was that the movie felt cold. Both Russell’s “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” affirmed the value of family and community. Despite the dysfunctional characters and situations, differences within families and communities were resolved. The characters learned that they could not exist on their own, and needed those who were closest to them. Woe to anyone who tried to sever the ties that held the family and close-knit community together!

I didn’t sense the same warm regard for family and community in “American Hustle.” Certainly the dysfunction is present, but not the affection. Perhaps it got lost in the midst of all the frenzied activities. There’s a real possibility that I might return to “American Hustle” to enjoy the performances and try to understand what really happened at the end. If I do, I’ll hope to find David Russell’s hidden family values along the way.

Tom Condon, OP