FBI trying to hustle politicians by hustling con artists.
“We’re always conning other people,” says a slurred, yet sure voice in the background. “It’s in our nature. We even con ourselves.” These words are coming from the mouth that belongs to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who quickly learned what it meant to grow up and survive in a harsh economy. Irving is the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to interact with out in public. He is grossly out of shape, he smells of old hairspray and cologne, his crafty eyes hide behind a dark pair of shades, and his diet consists of nothing but beer, fast food and cigars. From an outward appearance, Irving doesn’t really make a good impression. But man, can that guy talk a good game.
After rushing through Irving’s very brief childhood, we are quickly introduced to Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a woman in her mid-thirties whose beauty is both ageless and captivating. Despite his nauseating physical appearance, Sydney almost instantly falls in love with Irving, and Irving falls in love with her too. So much so that he discloses his illegal business with her, asking her to become a part of him scamming other people out of their hard-earned cash and checks.
That’s all I’m going to get into as far as the plot synopsis goes. Believe me, I haven’t even gotten to the surface of it. There’s an FBI agent trying to catch them named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), there’s a New Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner somewhere in the mix, Irving has a son and a wife he’s committed to named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). There’s even a mobster somewhere in this movie where an actor makes a cameo appearance, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing who it is (hint hint: He’s got some bad ideas in his head).
Point being: this is a smart movie. It’s funny, original, intelligent, and thoughtful, an observant portrait that looks at the moral and financial struggles of these characters and what impact their actions have on the people in their lives. Part of this, no doubt, is because of the cast’s mastery at delivery. Part of it is also because its writer-director is equally as funny, original, intelligent, and thoughtful as the story is. David O’Russell, who was nominated for best directing and writing Oscars for the past few years now (For Silver Linings Playbook last year and The Fighter in 2010), returns yet again with the same wit, charm, and complexion that made his previous films both unique and entertaining.
The dialogue is authentic, almost like it pops off of the pages of the screenplay just as much as it does in the movie. How though? This is, after all, a work of fiction, right? Wrong. The plot is just is like Irving’s deceptions: they’re only half fake. The movie is based on the real-life ASCAM sting operations of the late 1970’s, in which the FBI arrested over 31 individuals of congress and 7 were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. That sort of realism translates brilliantly to the screen, and makes the conversations characters share feel so personal. Make no mistake, fellow reader: this is, in every definition, a heist picture, because everyone is all after something and are willing to manipulate everyone in order to get to it first.
The cast is unforgettable. So much so that I can’t even pick a favorite among them. Bale is as talented as ever in this movie, a brilliant and dedicated method actor who has immersed himself so much into a role that its hard to imagine that at one point he was Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne. Lawrence and Adams are excellent female leads, and are great at expressing how conflicted Irving feels towards the both of them as lovers. Renner is great as the New Jersey mayor, a loving and kind-hearted man, father, and husband who just wants the best for everybody, but ends up making the wrong decisions in trying to do so. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Bradley Cooper, only because he is so passionate and wacky that he could have been redone as a cartoon character. Like I said though, I can’t pick one. This cast is so talented and skilled in their roles that to pick one performance over another would be considered a sin. They are just as responsible for bringing this story to life as David O’Russell is.
This movie has all of the elements of being Oscar-worthy material: a great story, dialogue, characters, direction, and a great cast that fills these figures with vibrant energy and personality. The only real problem with this movie is the setup, and that’s unfortunate because that’s one of the most important parts of any movie.
Let me provide an example: when I first watched Goodfellas, what absorbed me into that picture was the first 15 minutes, a little italian boy learning about the mafia as a child, and the first narration we hear being “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” Another one? In the opening scene of There Will Be Blood, we see a touching yet tragic portrait of a man seeing one of his workers die in an oil deposit, leaving behind an infant who can’t even speak, and Daniel Plainview deciding, against his better judgement, to adopt him as his own. Do I even need to mention Up?
All of those pictures started off with a bang because they gave us a perspective into the character’s history before getting into the meat of the story. Not that there needs to be a “How-to” guide for making opening sequences, but American Hustle literally flashes Irving’s childhood for about a minute before throwing us into the plot. I’m all for “show-don’t-tell” stories where they’re all situational, strictly limited to being set in their own present (Such as The King’s Speech or Black Hawk Down), but this one felt too much like being thrown into cold water when you can’t even swim.
Despite my views, I know critics already have their opinions established on this movie. They’re going to say its a masterpiece. That it is masterfully written and acted (which it is) and that it is going going to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards (which it will be as well). What critics won’t realize is the movie itself might be a con, making people believe that it is better than it actually is.
Well, if it is a scam, and David O’Russell is the con artist, then all I’m going to say is that he did a damn good job at it.
Post-script: For you irresponsible parents that are considering taking your teenagers to see this movie, don’t. The MPAA rated this movie R for “pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.” The violence is very brief and honestly not a large problem. The sexual content, however, is profuse because of Irving’s two sexual partners, and the movie has no shame for showing us any of it. I noticed over 100 F-words.