Who’s the master: the painter or the forger?
When “American” is used as a descriptive adjective, it can demonstrate pride. Or, it can also shift our focus from the sincere to the tongue-in-cheek. Hitchcock’s Psycho and the similarly-titled Christian Bale masterwork from 2000 bear little resemblance when showing just what it’s like to be a psychopath in the United States. Now, over a decade later, the English maestro Bale is proving—to Americans, almost shamefully so—that he’s acquired an expertise on the mannerisms and affectations of our culture motivated by vanity and the prospect of fortune. “American” means something.
Under the thin veil of another time period, David O. Russell‘s American Hustle explores the big egos and hairstyles that only Manhattan can contain. The film opens on Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) doing and redoing his hair; not everything was different back then. Some years earlier, he meets the fiercely seducing Sydney (Amy Adams) and what follows is a quasi-Bonnie and Clyde retelling of the ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps Russell is mindful of the fragility associated with films that claim to be “based on a true story” when he promises that “Some of this actually happened.” More likely, however, is that he’s showing irreverence toward any obligation Hollywood has for telling the truth.
American Hustle marks the second collaboration between director David O. Russell and actors Christian Bale, Amy Adams (The Fighter) and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook). With Jeremy Renner (as Mayor Carmine Polito), they amount to nothing less than one of the finest acting ensembles ever put on screen. Mr. Bale strips away his black cape with the same bubbling elation with which Irving woos Sydney. There’s nothing particularly jarring about his infidelity—it is what it is—but Rosalyn (Lawrence), Irving’s wife, is equally heartbreaking and fierce when she says about Sydney, “I know who that is. I know who that is.”
Russell does little to conceal when he’s speaking through the characters. The microwave is one device he seems to have a particular fascination with. Irving brings one home as a gift from Carmine. It’s not J. Law’s fault for nearly setting the house on fire, because no one was there to stop her from putting metal in the “science oven.” She’s the hero after she puts it out: “Bring something into this house that’s gonna take all of the nutrition out of our food and light our house on fire? Thank God for me.” An overtly banal fishing story comes up frequently in scenes with FBI Agent Stoddard Thorsen (Louis CK in a perfect fit), which plagues Richie DiMaso (Cooper); there must be a deeper message—a twist at the end, an untimely death—and an underlying thematic and symbolic design. DiMaso’s begging of Thorsen to cut to the chase only discourages him from ever getting to it.
Some of the best films this year have been especially unique, but Russell’s fine brush strokes color in and enhance a canvas that’s been used for many years. What’s American hustle: more sex, more booze, and even more money. What could be better? Thank God for David O. Russell.