David O. Russell is the hottest filmmaker working today. Following the disastrous “I Heart Huckabees” in 2004, he took a few years off before returning to strike gold with his last two films: “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” which collectively won three Oscars from fifteen nominations. And now with “American Hustle” making the critical rounds, it suffices to say that the 55-year-old is finally starting to hit his stride.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are tri-state con artists who collect their paychecks cheating down-and-out clients. When FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act, he gives them a choice: Work with him, or go to jail. They choose the former, embarking on a chaotic series of con jobs to lure politicians and mobsters into the very hands of the FBI, though personal strife threatens to undermine the entire operation.
Like “Silver Linings” especially, “Hustle” is a movie that caters to an attentive audience. The plot drifts from one story to another, connecting all the loose threads under what passes as a plot-driven umbrella. But the improvisational, jumpy nature of the film points to another, more important focus: intense character drama. With yet another ensemble cast behind him, Russell finds a simple plot to build a story around — con artists help the FBI con “bad” men — but he lets his characters’ actions and emotions dominate the narrative.
Rosenfeld and Prosser deal with the central problem in everyone’s lives: the search for something better. Though they may not know what that better existence is, they are constantly striving for more — more money, more power, more security. And the rest of the cast readily partakes in the crisis. Di Maso wants his career to take off; Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) wants to rejuvenate his community; Rosalynn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) just wants someone to love, appreciate and respect her.
As Bale’s character says at one point during the film, life is not black-and-white — it’s gray all the way through. No major character here is unsympathetic. They all have major wants because they’re human beings, and the greatest moments of impact occur when the characters begin to realize that, for one reason or another, they must turn to illicit avenues for satisfaction. Does that make them despicable? Does that make them pathetic? Not quite. There are no judge and juries in this film — only incomplete people tussling with their inadequacies, and we the audience trying to decipher them.
The problem arrives when we try fitting this film into the context of our own narratives. If the world is entirely gray, how can we attempt to pass a sentence on anyone around us? What gives us the right to judge others for their actions or mistakes? Rosenfeld is a con man treading water in a sea of crooks, and as much as anything else, being an outright liar has kept his head above the surface.
At the end of the day, for all the criminality, Russell’s characters still manage to move us because their struggles are tethered to love and family. Even when one couple falls out of it, the capacity to find it elsewhere never diminishes. It’s what hooks them back into a world that can be full of good and gracious people, exposing their nefarious underworld dealings for what they are: a means to an end. That end is survival, and what this particular film paints most poignantly is that survival is not necessarily for one’s own self but rather for the ones we care most about.
“American Hustle” has already won three Golden Globes, and like its predecessor “Silver Linings,” it hopes to stock up on a few Oscars in a couple months as well. And I for one am completely expecting it. Do I think it’s the best film of the season? Do I even think it’s the year’s best white collar-crime film? These are debates for another day. But the central fact remains the same. “Hustle” is a high-quality picture built on high-quality performances: a genuine visual treat and a strong contender this awards season. Only a con man could tell you otherwise.