American Hustle received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor: Christian Bale, Best Actress: Amy Adams, Best Supporting Actor: Bradley Cooper, Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Best Director: David O. Russell, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.
It is a rare thing to find a combination of actors, a good script, and a director who can get the best out of all of them. We come close in American Hustle. As the film correctly tells us from the beginning, “this mostly happened.”
It is a story of corruption, loyalty, duplicity, and love. And at the center is a slightly overweight, balding with a really bad comb over con artist, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Irving started early in his vocation. He would run through town and throw rocks into local business windows, giving them a cause to call his dad, the only glass man in town. While Irving owns a chain of dry cleaners in New York, his real business is selling forged and stolen art. He is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adopted her son as his own. Rosalyn is a bit of a nut-brain and a loose cannon. To say the least, Irving is successful.
Life takes a turn for Irving when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Sydney is a former stripper determined to make something of herself. She and Irving bond over Duke Ellington at a pool party and their dangerous affair begins. Dangerous because they become partners in a scheme where Sydney is a British elite who has connections for loans. They take the money upfront for the loan which they have no intentions of returning. Everything is smooth, until Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) shows up in their office to get a loan. Richie is a FBI agent working on a sting operation. The film’s twist and main story line happens here. Richie convinces Irving and Sydney to work with him in a sting for other con artists. The two agree to stay out of prison.
The rising action of this story arc begins when Richie sets his eyes on New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Carmine is trying to rebuild Atlantic City in an effort to bring jobs to his voters. Richie sees this as a huge career move to catch a politician, along with all the deep pockets, in a scam. Richie sends Irving and Sydney in, but is attracted to this lifestyle (as well as to Sydney) and wants in on this action. Despite Irving’s warnings, Richie pushes ahead.
Richie, to say the least, is high-strung when he comes to his vocation. He still lives at home with his mother and spends hours with his straight hair in curlers to get the mysteriously, sexy Italian look. Richie, like all of the characters in this film, longs to be someone he is not. Each of these characters are driven by this ambition to make something of themselves and to be successful at it. And they do not always choose paths that would be considered righteous. There are many shades of grey, with no clear lines between what is right and wrong (something I think we have seen more of since The Dark Knight).
Some of the greatest Biblical heroes have dwelled in this area of grey. David, the man after God’s own heart, was a con artist in his own right. After having an affair with Bathsheba, he attempts to con her husband Uriah into returning from battle and sleeping with Bathsheba. Uriah, too loyal to his fellow soldiers, refuses to sleep in his own house, much less with his wife. After that didn’t work, David’s plan is to have Uriah moved to the front line of battle so that he will die.
The lines between right and wrong become blurred. Richie is all his effort to do right, does a lot of wrong. Irving, from his childhood on, did a lot of wrong with good intentions. But, like David, it doesn’t make them less human. With the FBI operation to catch Carmine red-handed goes south, Irving has to make it work. He becomes good friends with Carmine, going to dinner with him and the wives. Irving struggles with the relationship between an authentic friendship and another con. His humanity finally rules, leading to Irving’s most redemptive act. He goes to Carmine and explains to him, at times through ugly tears, that the whole thing is a FBI set-up. Irving believes in Carmine and in what he is doing. He recognizes that Carmine is doing a good thing for a lot of good people. Again, there is a lot of shades of grey.
David O. Russell is the director, and he knows his quartet of actors well enough to know how to get the best out of each of them. This could easily explain how all four of them have reached nominations. And it could be that Russell has directed the four in other films; Bale and Adams in The Fighter, and Cooper and Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. This ensemble reminds us of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Not only does Russell get the best out of the ensemble, he tells a story with smooth transitions, one episode of the story flowing into the next without any awkwardness. At times, the tools of the transition are the voice over narration by Bale and Adams, or the powerful use of music. Overall, Russell tells a story that is funny, while profound, reminding us that there is a lot of grey in our own lives.