American Hustle (2013)
Written by Eric Warner Singer and David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
Inspired by the FBI’s Abscam operation to take down organized crime and later public corruption, American Hustle shakes off the procedural to tell a more stylistic and fictionalized version of the events. Irving Rosenfeld is a con artist in New Jersey who has found a soulmate and partner in Sydney Prosser. The two are running an art scam, and some loan sharking but get caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso who coerces them into using their skills and connections to start taking down bigger fish. Irving’s life is complicated by his irresponsible wife Rosalyn whose son he has adopted which causes him to refuse to leave her. DiMaso gets the pair embroiled with the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and on the ground floor of the mob-led rebuilding of Atlantic City. As expected the stakes crank up to a frenetic level and Irving finds himself deeper and more threatened than he ever wanted to be.
The opening scene of American Hustle is the thesis statement of the film. Irving’s bloated hairy gut is on display. Irving stands in front of a mirror, freshly awoken and spends an extended amount of time applying glue, a hairpiece, and fashioning an elaborate combover. What’s communicated here is that the movie will be about false appearances, the people we meet will be duplicitous, and nothing we’re told will be the exact truth, lots of partial truths shaped for the benefit of interested parties. Appearances are significant for con artists; they need their marks to get caught up in a fairy tale that ends with the target being the hero or becoming disgustingly rich. The con artist needs to make themselves visually appealing to match their banter, so they sculpt their hair and their body to become something fantastic.
It’s very hard not to notice the significant role music plays throughout the whole film, sometimes diegetic or others part of the film’s soundtrack. This interplay of how music exists in the universe of the movie adds another layer to what Russell is saying. Sometimes the music is for the benefit of the audience and others it is entertainment for the characters. Rosalyn sings along, and dance’s to Wings’ “Live or Let Die” as her husband is driven off by very dangerous men, the song becoming two things at once. Duke Ellington’s “Jeep” serves as an emotional link between Irving and Sydney. Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” blasts as Irving and Sydney are forced to do the bidding of DiMaso.
Another aspect of the movie that gets much praise is the stylishness, referencing the music but also the clothes and hair. Sydney and Rosalyn are shown continuously in very chic, period hip clothing. Early on we see that these clothes are not something Sydney has gathered over the years, but the items left behind and kept in the safe at one of Irving’s dry cleaning locations. Her wardrobe is a construct of the character she is playing, a persona she adds a fake English accent to faux credentials. Rosalyn seems to be more “real,” yet she hides in her home and knows only about the world through articles she reads in magazines. When she’s caught being wrong or causing an accident she creates stories and excuses.
Going back to the opening moments of Irving applying his wig, I think one of the themes in the film is the artifice of cinema and acting. The audiences are the willing marks and the actors, directors, and the rest of the crew are conmen. The con artists create a tableau of laughs and thrills because that’s what we came here for. We know they are lying to us, we see our star in all his ugliness putting together the character of Irving. That is okay though; we want the lie because the reality is horrid. The real-life story behind American Hustle doesn’t have the clever plot turns and third act twists of the film, it left families torn apart and sadness in the wake of the cons. American Hustle gives us heroes, villains, and a happy ending. It’s the escapism that theater can be when we can’t take the harsh light anymore.