Movie Review: ‘American Hustle’ explores self-deceit, reinvention

Director David O. Russell, of “The Fighter,” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” once again explores the theme of self-reinvention in his latest film, “American Hustle.”

Erratic, intimate and consistently entertaining, the film stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles – all very, very good.

Like the best storytellers, Russell takes an inherently intriguing premise and exploits it for his own artistic means. The plot, loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s, revolves around con artist Irving Rosenfeld who is hired by the FBI to entrap corrupt politicians.

Bale plays Rosenfeld with a pot belly and an “elaborate” combover that makes him all the more likable. He and his girlfriend, Sydney (Adams, half-naked), begin a fraudulent business that promises investors substantial loans if they pay an up front fee of $5,000. Eventually the FBI catches them and cuts them a deal: freedom in exchange for their help.

The film doesn’t spend too much time explaining the convoluted details of the operation, relaying just enough information so the audience knows what each character has to lose if the deal goes bad.

Instead of pondering political corruption and institutional incompetence, the movie uses those themes and memorable characters to argue that changing one’s behavior starts with confronting it head on.

“We all con ourselves every day,” Rosenfeld says at one point. “We con ourselves about what we want, what we need.”

But that kind of self-deceit can’t last, the film ultimately argues, when Rosenfeld takes a liking to the family man the FBI wants him to ensnare, exposing his untenable mode of being: he’s a con artist with a big heart.

In this sense, Rosenfeld is almost a stand-in for Russell, who, as a filmmaker, innately uses lies to tell truths. Such is the nature of storytelling.

That sentiment is explicit in Rosenfeld’s characterization – emphasis on the “artist” after the “con.”

For example, he has epiphanies in the unlikeliest circumstances, hatching a master plan to unweave the overly-tangled operation while he’s in the front seat of a car being strangled by someone in the back, a canvas bag thrown over his head.

All films are cons after all, carefully constructed narratives whose endings retroactively shape our impressions of what came before.

But even the most gifted filmmakers, Russell included, can’t account for the unpredictable, the detail that gets overlooked, revealing inconsistencies or loose ends in the grand design.

In the film, that element is present in Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Rosalyn, Rosenfeld’s unruly, estranged wife who, in her naivete and anger, puts everyone’s lives at risk when she says a little bit too much to the wrong person. Her characterization defines Russell’s aesthetic sensibility.

He’s a director who thrives on the unpredictable. His films – studies of risky, uncontrollable individuals whose families help reign them in – often feel improvisational.

“American Hustle” is no different. The dialogue doesn’t feel scripted so much as reactive. The camera, which never seems to stop moving, gives grace and fluidity to what would otherwise be an awkward structure full of arbitrary voiceovers and jarring flashbacks, not to mention musical cues that have no apparent rhyme or reason as to when they occur in the film.

But chaos, after all, is Russell’s forte, reflected nicely in the flamboyant style of dress of the late ’70s and the rowdy hairdos. In this film, hair is everywhere, as important to understanding the characters as their actions. An early scene is of Rosenfeld achieving his signature combover. When it finally comes together, you can’t help but admire his dedication to the craft.

Here is a man with utter confidence, fully aware of what he has and getting the most out of it, and a film that does the same.