Every day, from now until the weekend of the 2014 Academy Awards, HeyUGuys will be publishing an article championing one of the nine films in contention for the coveted Best Picture Oscar. We will be collecting them all here, where you can find the previous articles.
Today we turn our attention to David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, whose long con seduced many with its evocative, heightened 70s bewitchery. Oscars may indeed a certainty, but does it deserve the grand prize? Cai Ross makes the case…
American Hustle is a film about the intricate means by which we deceive and fictionalise our entire lives to no good end, and the rescue which honesty and truth can potentially bring. Not only is it the best film of last year, but it is also the final proof of the Electric Light Orchestra’s standing as a truly great soundtrack band – but that’s by the by and, fittingly, a deliberate obfuscation.
‘People believe what they want to believe,’ is Irving Rosenfeld’s motto. People believe that the forged Rembrandt in the art gallery is genuine; that his ex-stripper Midwestern girlfriend, Sydney is actually Lady Edith Greensly, English aristocrat with royal banking connections and the ideal person with whom to invest one’s life savings – often fatally, they believe that they are much sharper and much smarter than they really are.
Enter Bradley Cooper, channelling Rumours-era Lindsay Buckingham as FBI agent Richie DiMaso. His grand plan is to set up various corrupt senators and politicians to accept bribes from fake Arab sheikhs and bring them down (a wheeze based on the actual late 1970s ABSCAM scandal). His boss, the cautious, world-weary Stoddard Thorsen (Louis CK – a standout) is unimpressed with Richie’s pitch, but fortunately Thorsen’s boss is just as desperate for a headline-grabbing, career-defining pinch as Richie is. By way of an arrest and prospective jail sentence, Irving and Sydney are roped in to help sting New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
The themes of subterfuge and self-delusion are woven into this gaudy ‘Bakelite and disco-light’ tapestry from top to bottom, and director David O Russell is deliberately in on the act. Just as Irving dresses his balding head in a fuzzy-felt comb-over or as Richie fills his hair with micro-curlers to give him a super-tight super-perm (hair is tremendously important in this film), Russell decorates his whole film in borrowed tricks from acknowledged masters with the brazenness of a smiling thief strutting into the cop-shop with his wrists outstretched and a stolen tiara on his head. Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson must have been checking their pockets all the way through this.
The heady, thick-wallpapered production design, the whipalong editing and the era-specific cinematography – it could easily be László Kovács holding the light-meter – pull you into Russell’s slyly constructed world so completely that the sudden appearance of raw truth feels like a punch to the gut, largely thanks to a group of extraordinary actors in their prime playing off each other like ballet dancers.
Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams (and in a fine cameo, Robert De Niro) have all worked with Russell before and have all been guided towards Oscar nominations and awards by his hand. In fact, with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, he has become the first director with two consecutive movies to feature actors nominated in all four categories. Does this then qualify American Hustle for Best Picture victory?
I suspect that the humanity-defining spirituality of Gravity and the sheer importance of 12 Years a Slave have pushed Hustle into the back seat, but if they were to somehow cancel each other out… well, stranger things have happened at Oscar ceremonies and very often on the back of bravura acting performances. The Screen Actors Guild carries a disproportionate weight in The Academy – why do you think Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and even Mel Gibson have all won Best Director? The SAG were even “blamed” for the ensemble drama Crash winning Best Picture in 2005 and American Hustle has already won the SAG Award this year for Outstanding Cast.
Plot is where American Hustle falters. The fact that Carmine Polito is a sincerely decent politician and family man, selflessly determined to improve the lives of those in his constituency, make him a baffling target for the various sting operations – most hilariously involving a Mexican FBI agent unconvincingly dressed as an Arab sheikh. For a movie about con-artists, the final, plot-spinning twist is also something of a let-down, sorely lacking the euphoric table-turn of The Sting, for example, or The Spanish Prisoner.
Sometimes though, great films can be built upon the backs of their characters alone. Reportedly, Russell told Christian Bale on the set, ‘I hate plots, I’m all about characters; that’s it.’ The characters in American Hustle (and the actors playing them) are so brilliantly positioned to react off each other and propel themselves towards hubris and tragedy that it feels like a great football match with every kick and tackle predetermined by a master tactician. Cooper is all thrusting, manic ambition, desperate to camouflage the low-watt truth of his existence: living at home with his mum and a fiancé he doesn’t want to know.
Renner’s desperation no less intense than Cooper’s but comes from an entirely benevolent place. His developing relationship with Bale’s Rosenfeld is touching and tragic in its final collapse, and he does it all wearing Murray Hamilton’s hair from Jaws. The firecracker in the tinderbox is Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s manic, jilted wife, whose increasing instability is based on desperation to avoid divorce and a respect for her husband that she is unable to fully articulate. ‘Thank God for me!’ she boldly states, despite having just set fire to her own kitchen (personally, if this film has only one legacy, it’s the fact that in my house, the microwave is now referred to exclusively as the ‘Science Oven’). Yes indeed, thank God for Jennifer Lawrence.
Bale and Amy Adams though, are the glue that holds everything together. The latter is all tight containment of a fictional, ‘better’ person; her initial twitches of terror at the thought of being exposed are gradually replaced with an intense desperation to reclaim herself from her own lies. ‘No more fake shit!’ she screams at one point.
Then there’s Christian Bale, 40 pounds heavier with two herniated vertebrae to show for it, giving the best performance of his career so far. From the moment Richie deliberately messes up his hairpiece, our sympathies are with Irving Rosenfeld. A small-time con artist he may be, but he is sincere in his belief in the ‘art’ of the con; of ‘becoming someone people can pin their beliefs and dreams on,’ but he knows exactly what true love is and the truth of his love for Sydney is what makes him the last liar standing at the end. He is the soul, the unlikely moral centre of the film; silently aware and suffering no delusions – he knows that he is helping to destroy someone upon whom people were genuinely pinning their dreams and beliefs upon for completely legitimate reasons, and he knows that his actions will cost him dear.
Paul McCartney – whose track Live & Let Die will now be forever associated with Jennifer Lawrence cleaning her house – once said of one of his songs, ‘Even as we speak, it’s growing on you.’ The slow-release of American Hustle’s layered pleasures is still in effect. It just gets better and better the more one thinks about it, even weeks later; dare I say right up to the point when one might be filling in one’s Academy Awards ballot sheet. It’d be pretty apt, at least, if American Hustle could steal its way up onto the podium on Oscar night, tricking its way past expectant competitors. It’s unlikely, but I for one wouldn’t feel the least bit conned.