January 23, 2014

American Hustle: Who Said Con-Men Can’t Be Heroes?

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American Hustle takes the love story of Silver Linings Playbook and drops it in the middle of a Madoff-like scandal, as seen from the Point-of-View of the scammers themselves. Making gratuitous use of the 1970’s setting, the characters dress, talk and act absurdly. The situation seems ridiculous, and I wondered if this story was even worthy to tell.

The story, based on a real FBI operation nicknamed “ABSCAM,” is very convoluted and difficult to make cogent. The movie starts off in the beginning of Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney’s (Amy Adams) not-so-legal arrangement with an FBI agent, Richard “Richie” DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), to bait a NJ politician, Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), into accepting a cash bribe to fund a new gambling enterprise in his city.

The film subsequently travels backward and reveals how exactly Sydney and Irving had gotten into the mess. The couple begins an affair after falling madly in love at a pool party (it’s the ’70s!) and begin to scam others into taking bad loans. Irving keeps his secret life away from his vacuous and domineering wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he refuses to divorce out of kindness to his son. The Federal Bureau of Investigation infiltrates the operation and Sydney and Irving are put at the mercy of overly-ambitious and somewhat delusional rookie agent DiMaso. DiMaso decides to cut them a deal: the two can get out of prison time if they help the FBI catch a handful of corrupt politicians in a similar scheme. Cue the opening scene, now knowing they’re fighting for survival: not just for themselves, but for their relationship and the well-being of Irving’s family.

Despite the hard-to-follow story, David O. Russell’s direction is decidedly capable. Russell, whose past work includes 2010’s The Fighter and last year’s Best Picture nominee Silver Linings Playbook, reunites with many actors whom he has previously worked with, including Lawrence, Cooper, and Adas. It’s another feat altogether that the cast manage to make such despicable, unrelatable people sympathetic to audiences.

I feel that the film’s success has been in its ability to fully realize themes like heroism, bravery and survival with sometimes unflattering realism. The subject is chaotic, but Russell’s work is clear, understandable and human, which is a credit to his ability to take on otherwise overwhelming material and make it digestible. The film encourages audiences to take a second look at their pre-conceived notions and prejudices: sometimes even hustling is necessary to survive.

Impressively, all four leads of the movie — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence — have been nominated in each of this year’s Academy Awards acting categories. Aside from those four, it has six other Academy Awards nominations, leading nearly every other film recognized with a staggering ten nominations. American Hustle is the movie to watch this awards season.