American Hustle, much like the medium of film, is all about illusions. The characters that exist within David O. Russell’s latest film are all consumed with creating an image of something they are not. They believe in their hearts that they are destined for a life greater than the ones they currently lead. Lacking the patience to achieve the American dream through hard work, they opt to attain their goal off the backs of others.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are two individuals who feel that the finer things in life are just ripe for the taking. They are con artists, and kindred spirits, who have an intricate scheme which involves Sydney adopting the persona of a British aristocrat named Lady Edith Greensly. Pretending to have ties to wealthy contacts overseas, Lady Edith and Irving collect $5,000 from financially strapped individuals who believe they will be getting ten times that amount in return. However, their perfect scam is compromised when Sydney is busted for fraud by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Taking a shine to Sydney, and looking to advance within the bureau, Richie strikes a deal with the pair of hustlers. If Irving and Sydney can help him nab four other con artists then he will drop the charges against them.
Learning the tricks of the con trade, Richie begins to set his sights on more than just common criminals. Looking to entrap big fish like New Jersey Mayor Camine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is desperate to make Atlantic City a gambling maven, Richie uses Irving and Sydney to help him orchestrate an elaborate ruse. The con involves getting Carmine and other senators to take bribes from an alleged Arab Sheik looking to invest in an American project. Though Richie thinks he has all the angles covered, nothing can prepare him for the curveballs that come in the form of Irving’s unpredictable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and a mobster (Robert De Niro) who does not take kindly to charades.
American Hustle is a film that never seems to settle on the tone it wants to achieve. Russell creates a 70s infused crime tale that plays more like a comedic version of Martin Scorsese’s Casino with a political twist. The film both celebrates the intricate art of the long con, while simultaneously chastising the greed that corrupts individuals. We are meant to root for Irving and Sydney simply because they are in love and slightly less corrupt than the other characters in the film. However, similar to Jennifer Lawrence’s oddly amusing “Live and Let Die” sequence in the film, this never feels quite right. If anything, it is Carmine who draws our sympathy. He is the only character who seems to understand that in order to truly make a positive political change one must be willing to get their hands a little dirty.
The flimsy moral compass helps to emphasize how little Russell cares about documenting the real life Abscam FBI sting that took place. In fact the real long con that is at play in American Hustle is the one that David O. Russell plays on the audience. For a film about perception and image, American Hustle works hard to divert our eyes from the obvious. Underneath its shinny clothing, catchy 70s soundtrack and colourful characters, the film is pretending to be more important than it really is. Sure it is an entertaining romp, but the film does not linger long in one’s psyche.
This is especially telling when you consider how much praise Jennifer Lawrence is getting for her supporting work. While Lawrence does a great job playing the ditzy on the surface, but cunning underneath, Rosalyn, she is nothing more than an amusing distraction. She is the comic relief to take our minds away from the fact that the film meanders far more than it should. Fortunately, Russell’s saving grace is the wonderful performances by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. They bring a vibrant energy to the film that allows American Hustle to be immensely watchable even during its many idiosyncratic moments.
American Hustle may not be amongst the best films about con artists, nor is it even amongst the best films set in the 70s, yet it is hard to deny that the film provides ample laughs for a few hours. Just do not be conned yourself, there is little beneath its shiny surface.