People believe what they want to believe
Near the beginning of David O. Russell’s fictionalized treatment of the ABSCAM scandal (more on that later) a small-time con man from the Bronx named Irving Rosenfeld, played by the almost unrecognizably balding and overweight Christian Bale, has brought a woman back to one of his offices. The woman, named Sydney Prosser, is stuck at a dead end job as an administrative assistant at Cosmopolitan Magazine. He’s madly in love with her, not only because she’s played by Amy Adams, who, although born in 1974, seems to embody a vision of 1970s cool, but because he feels that she’s the one person in his life with whom he can be honest. He’s ready to tell her the truth, that he’s a con man who runs what might best be described as an analog version of the Nigerian e-mail scam. What’s more, he wants her to join him, to become his partner in crime.
“How do you get them their loans?” she says.
“These guys are lousy risks,” he replies. “I can’t get them a loan, but I get my fee, five thousand.”
Sydney understands almost what he’s asking her to do almost immediately. It’s not the Bush years, where easy credit can be had from legitimate banks, but the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the oil shocks, in the middle of a recession, where, because of stagflation, the dollar is getting less and less valuable. While clearly interested, she has a moment of hesitation.
“Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in a pool of desperation and you’re waiting for them,” she says, before walking out the door.
But it’s only a moment of hesitation. Soon Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who has re-christened herself “Lady Edith Greensly” and has started speaking in a phony British accent, are working as a team. In addition to bilking people out of the last of their savings with the promises loans never delivered, they sell stolen, and, more importantly, forged art. “Who’s the master?” Rosenfeld asks, showing off a copy of a fake Rembrandt, “the painter or the forger? People believe what they want to believe,” he adds, and we believe it.
I never even bothered to ask whether or not Adams’s fake British accent was credible because she so perfectly embodied the ideal of aspirational WASP sexiness that every NYC male, heterosexual white ethnic male falls prey to at one time or another. It worked for me. It works for Rosenfeld, and, more importantly, it works for Richie DiMaso, a strange, ethically compromised undercover FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper who lives with his butch Italian American mother, and who maintains an elaborate white boy afro by putting his hair up into hair curlers every night.
By the way I’ve described them so far, you might not think that Irving and Sydney are particularly likable. At best, you may think, they’re a complex pair of anti heroes like Walter and Skylar White, sympathetic only because they’re honestly corrupt in a dishonestly corrupt society. They are indeed that, but there’s more. By the end of American Hustle, we genuinely like Sydney and Irving. We even root for them to get away with it all, and live happily ever after.
To explain exactly what ABSCAM was is far beyond the scope of this review. So I suggest you go to Wikipedia and look it up. Even after you do, you’ll still be left scratching your head, but suffice to say, it was a sting operation by the FBI against a United States Senator, Harrison Williams, a Mayor of Camden, Angelo Errichetti, and several other members of Congress, an attempt to catch them accepting bribes offered by a phony Arab Sheik. Remember, ABSCAM took place right after the oil embargo. Looking back, neither Williams nor Errichetti, or any of the other members of Congress the FBI attempted to bribe seem like particularly bad guys, and, in fact, the sting operation bordered on entrapment, so much so that there are even conspiracy theories about how the FBI was trying to exact payback against Congress for the Church Committee Hearings.
David O. Russell’s take on ABSCAM is much less conspiratorial. For him, ABSCAM wasn’t so much payback for the Church Committee as a sign that the only difference between the FBI and the New York City underworld, between Irving Rosenfeld and Richie DiMaso is that one lives by his wits and another draws a government salary. Richie DiMaso is no Eliot Ness. Rather, he’s an ambitious hustler who wants to make a name for himself by, ideally, bagging a mobster played by Robert DeNiro, or, if that fails, a few members of Congress and a Mayor of Camden.
After arresting Sydney and Irving, locking Sydney up for three days in solitary confinement, and coercing them into becoming FBI informants, DiMaso realizes that he feels more for Sydney than disgust at a petty criminal and scam artist. Just like Irving Rosenfeld, he falls madly in love with her, but unlike Rosenfeld, and this is the important difference, he has the power of the state on his side. He can make her requite his affections because he can also lock her up in a cage if she doesn’t. There’s nothing heavy handed about the way Russell introduces it. Indeed, it’s so subtle, we barely notice it happened. While DiMaso isn’t exactly Prince Charming, he’s no comic book villain twirling his mustache while he ties the damsel in distress to the railroad tracks. Sydney’s no damsel in distress and DiMaso, for all his faults, unlike Rosenfeld, at least has all his hair, and at least goes to the gym once in awhile. But the sex DiMaso wants, and never gets, would in fact, be coerced sex, and that, in the end, is what makes Sydney and Irving, for all their faults, the heroes we root for, and DiMaso, for all the sympathy we may feel for his hopeless lust for Sydney, the villain.
The rest of it unfolds from there. Irving Rosenfeld, heartless scam artist, begins to realize he may have a soul after all. The FBI’s mark, a liberal New Jersey politician named Carmine Polito, played by Jeremy Renner as a bit of a fop with a puffy hairstyle (this film is all about hair and cleavage), may not be the second coming of Lincoln. He may be involved in some low level corruption, but only because “that’s the way things are done” in his world. What’s more, he genuinely cares about the people he governs. He likes black people. He hates racism. He considers his constituents not only his constituents but his extended family. He may be willing to bend a few rules to build Casinos in Atlantic City — gambling in New Jersey has just been legalized — but he’s doing it to get jobs for the people of his state, not to line his own pockets. So Rosenfeld decides to turn the tables on the FBI, and, when he does, the movie has so effectively conned us all we never see it coming.
Final note: Jennifer Lawrence, the current Hollywood mega star, plays Irving Rosenfeld’s wife Rosyln. She’s far too beautiful, far too Anglo Saxon, and at least ten years too young for the role. Debbi Mazur or Joan Cusack in her early 30s would have been perfect. But, whatever her faults, Lawrence earns her pay, throwing herself into the role of a 1970s New York City guidette with such abandon, we almost begin to believe her Jersey accent is authentic. Her looks also contrasts with Adams’s. Where Adams is slim, elegant, cool, Lawrence is loud, fleshy, an out of control loose canon. At times, so much energy does Lawrence put into the role of blond Snooki, you can almost forget Adams is 5’4” and Lawrence is 5’11”. Adams just seems taller. What’s more, Russell shows us all the flaws in Amy Adam’s skin. She’s sexy because she’s real. Lawrence, by contrast, comes off like a perfect, almost too perfect wax doll, a 1970s Playboy Playmate a few years later, neglected, feeling left alone, and determined to push herself into the action by any means necessary (even if it means getting her husband kidnapped by mobsters).
Final verdict on American Hustle: Maybe not a great movie or even a very good one, but a thoroughly entertaining, and genuinely anti-authoritarian one, worth seeing for Christian Bale’s toupee, if nothing else.