“Dirty Work” by Steely Dan. That’s the first music we hear. More prominent is “Jeep Blues” by Duke Ellington. Besides the crazy good all-star cast, it’s these musical notes that are pushing David O. Russell further into the hallway of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
“American Hustle” promises a tale of greed, danger, and the pursuit of the American dream, and Russell delivers. “Hustle” follows our very different characters through their relationships and conflicts with one another. Sometimes with narrative exposition, other times, and mostly, just through good ol’ dialogue and the building of tension and pressure. Russell captures most perfectly the essence of 1970s America with a timely soundtrack, and an awe-inspiring amalgamation of extravagant ‘70s outfits.
We meet the balding, overweight, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in our opening scene. He’s spending a lot of time gluing a hairpiece to his dome. It’s a painstaking procedure, but the comb over is potentially more important than we realize. Within a few minutes, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) bursts into the room with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). We don’t really know what’s going on, but Sydney tries to contain DiMaso’s rage. He’s upset about something, and while a moment ago, we were sure Irving was some sort of power figure, DiMaso smacks Irving’s head, screwing up hours of work on his hair. Sydney can’t believe what just happened, and Irving can barely contain his anger, which has presumably been building up over time. This is but a small description of our characters and how they interact with one another.
“Hustle” follows a number of characters, but mostly Irving and Sydney. Irving is an experienced con artist, able to sell counterfeit paintings to schmucks in a wink of the eye. He meets Sydney at a party, and the two click. They go into the business together. She develops a fake accent and starts charming more suckers to drop their money into phony investment schemes that would never work in today’s society. The two exist in a beautiful world of love, where nothing and no one else matters. It’s perfect for them, until the hustlers get hustled by detective DiMaso, and end up forced into a deal that requires them to hustle some other hustlers and bring them to justice. Enter Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). This is a man who wants nothing more than the best for the good people of New Jersey. He’s honest, but he’s also a politician. Also, Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). So there’s that.
It’s these reasons and character traits which drive our story. Each person is infinitely different from the last, yet within time, they are all entirely dependent on each other. Despite thinking they are all quite close to one another, they are separated by miles because of malicious lies and the hidden truths each of them have. No matter how many hours and days they have spent together, every relationship is held together and hooked tightly to another relationship, yet each one isn’t even real. It’s all a lie. For the most part. Each character knows they are living a lie towards one person, however they are unaware that they are being lied to as well.
Is that confusing enough for you? Fantastic. Good storytelling shouldn’t really make that much sense until you are told the story in person. David O. Russell is a powerful storyteller. If “Three Kings” was Russell’s opening career act, then “The Fighter”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, and “American Hustle”, are all scenes in Russell’s second act. It seems he is only just getting started.
“Hustle” succeeds in telling a story of deceit, where everything hinges on nothing. It’s all a sham, and at many points, you are left trying to remember what’s true and what isn’t. Sure Irving is scum at first glance, but if you really take the time, it becomes obvious that he wants to make right what he made wrong. Rosalyn is a pissed off wife who drinks and says a lot of stupid things, but in the end, she just wants a husband who loves her, and cares about her. “Hustle” examines the motives of the human condition, and how far people are willing to go to get what they want.
Now, we should be nothing but surprised if “Hustle” doesn’t pick up Oscar nominations for its ensemble cast, much like how “Silver Linings” did last year. “Hustle” also includes a few really great cameos from Alan Arkin and Robert DeNiro. Every actor works so well with the next.
“Hustle” is really a funny movie, but it is also a very serious film. This is the best thing I’ve seen all year, right next to “Gravity”. It doesn’t care about being moral. It cares about being accurate. It cares about no one, yet shows a high level of compassion for its characters. Greed sows together the story of “Hustle”, and by the end, greed is the reason for everything unraveling in such satisfactory fashion. Greed isn’t just about money. Greed shows up in jealousy of relationships. Greed in gaining money to help the people.
This film is yet another excellent effort by Russell and his unbelievably talented cast. Yes, this isn’t a film like “Gravity”, yet the tension of relationships and the ever-growing presence of greed and deceit weaves a tapestry of uneasiness that could begin to snap open at any moment, revealing the dirty reality which is the true heart of our beloved con artists.
Oh, and if you had to choose between the two, please, I deeply implore for you to select this over Scorcese’s “Wolf of Wall Street”. “Oh no, Chris! You can’t say such a thing!” Well yes. Yes, I can.