The most important factor in a con is finding someone to deceive. The easiest way to do that is to make your deception 100% believable; build it “from the feet up”, as it were. Similarly, the most important part of making a film is hooking an audience. Again, the easiest way to accomplish this is to build a world around the story you’re trying to tell that is so believable and engrossing that a viewer has no choice but to buy it. This similarity is not lost on David O. Russell, and his American Hustle sells you so completely that you will lose yourself in its abstract mania.
American Hustle is “based on a true story”; you know, the kind of “basis” that only partially adheres to reality. The film owns to its diversions from truth with a simple notice at its beginning: “Some of this actually happened”. I love that because this is not a documentary on historical events; it’s a dramatization of story elements manipulated to tell an intriguing narrative. That narrative is the FBI’s Abscam operation that took place in the ’70s and ’80s. The characters present in American Hustle are loosely based on real people who participated in these real events, and that is where the true artistry of the film comes into focus.
From the moment American Hustle begins, it’s just a bit off. From the characters’ appearances, to the setting, to the wardrobe, to the music, to the surreal sociology; nothing feels real. It’s all a hyperactive embellishment of what you actually think and feel. It’s jarring, and it’s uncomfortable; but then you keep watching. The environment of the film never wavers from this exaggeration; it so maintains this blown-out perm of a reality that you become Alice, who has fallen into a rabbit hole where cats disappear and of course tea parties are mad. Like even the most masterful of art forgers, there are tiny moments where David O. Russell’s brush strokes become perhaps a bit too heavy or forced, but he comes so close to painting a masterpiece that marries this outsized world to the Tennessee Williams-esque, volcanic emotion of his dialogue that, by the time the credits roll, your mind has been conned into believing the perception of reality that it always knew was genuine is, in actuality, a fake. This world with hair styles crazier than its criminals has replaced your own, and you can’t tell which side of the looking glass you’re on anymore.
The white rabbit of this tale is played by Christian Bale’s con man Irving Rosenfeld. While his combover life is meticulously constructed in front of your eyes and you follow in his footsteps, you see he’s actually surrounded by a world of mad hatters. Bale, one of Hollywood’s great actors, disappears into the role of this conflicted con artist. The film is populated with several great performances: from Bradley Cooper’s ambitiously flawed FBI agent, to Jennifer Lawrence’s unloved introvert, to Amy Adams’ discovered genius, to Jeremy Renner’s crooked family man; it’s hard to say which is the maddest of the hatters, but they’re all fantastic. Louis C.K. also turns in an excellent performance; I hope he keeps getting roles like this.
While American Hustle can be described as a fully realized story of excessive and compulsive fabrication, there are moments in the film that make it clear there is no real moral to this story. Are there consequences to a life manufactured by deception? Sure, sometimes, and sometimes it just results in a great damn movie.