Wheeling and Dealing in American Hustle
Every actor should have at least one good caper movie in their repertoire somewhere, and for Amy Adams that movie is American Hustle. This is that rare beast; a Hollywood film made with a top draw cast – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, all of whom are playing against type and at the height of their respective talents. There’s even a brief cameo appearance by Robert De Niro. They’re backed up to the hilt by a razor-sharp screenplay of dizzying black comedy co-written and shot by director David O. Russell, fresh from the success of Silver Linings Playbook, and also at the peak of his game. So let’s take a closer look at the result.
Sydney Prosser: [voice over] I was broke, fearless, with nothing to lose. And my dream, more than anything, was to become anyone else other than who I was.
A far cry from Giselle, the wide-eyed Disney princess of 2007’s surprise hit Enchanted, Amy here dips back into the murky world of con-artists she visited alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Spielberg’s 2002 biopic Catch Me If You Can, the story of notorious international fraudster Frank Abagnale, Jr.
In American Hustle though, the chicanery is pitched at a much lower key, for the lead characters inhabit less exotic spheres, and their actions, centered in New Jersey, are driven by desperation as much as they are by profit. The film sees Amy romantically partnered with Christian Bale; the two had worked together previously on The Fighter in 2010, also directed by David O. Russell.
Adams, in her 25th major film role, plays Sydney Prosser, a beguiling American con-artist posing as glamorous Englishwoman “Lady Edith Greensley.” Christian Bale plays her lover, the erratic but occasionally brilliant con artist Irving Rosenfeld. The two are drawn into the dangerous yet seductive world of mobsters and high finance powerbrokers through the manipulations of ambitious FBI agent and love-rival, Richie DiMaso, as exuberantly portrayed by Bradley Cooper.
Jeremy Renner is “mayor” Carmine Polito, a naive but well-meaning politician who despite good intentions becomes the unwitting dupe for the con the FBI need pulled. Jennifer Lawrence rounds off the ensemble superbly as the housebound Rosalyn, Irving’s neurotic but frustratingly loveable wife who could bring the whole scheme crashing down through a careless word whispered in the wrong ear.
Sydney Prosser: Everybody at the bottom crosses path eventually, in a pool of desperation, and…you’re waiting for them.
Irving Rosenfeld: How about we?
The action of American Hustle takes place at the seedy end of the 1970s – beginning in 1978 and culminating in the early eighties. The cinematography is in keeping with the bleached yet gaudy tones of the era, and drips with hues of beige and yellow, like an old Polaroid photograph.
The concept of gambling is crucial to this film, as a theme and as a metaphor. To one degree or another, everyone’s at it, and the stakes are high in each case. Set as the movie is around the intersection of property speculation, state politics and the gambling world, the drama unfolds in scenes bedecked with the lush carpets and ornate filigree of fancy hotels and gambling establishments, classy restaurants and glitzy fundraisers. This evocative setting puts American Hustle in line with previous crime caper movies such as Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting.
From Ocean’s Eleven – both of its incarnations – to 1973’s The Sting, it seems that casinos are a popular backdrop for such storylines, for the luxury gambling sector is a mysterious and alluring swirl of highly charged dramatic elements: what is visible on the face of a poker player is rarely a good clue as to what is going on beneath the surface. In this film, everyone has a secret, and in an environment where secrets can be a deadly business.
Without giving too much away, the complex plot is loosely based around a real-life FBI sting operation in New Jersey – which largely succeeded. It’s a morality tale in the Dostoyevsky mold, bereft of conventional heroes and villains. Instead we are shown a depth of character development rare in Hollywood scripts. Everyone here is flawed, sometimes fundamentally so. Each protagonist is trying to play to their strengths, but is undone by their inherent weaknesses, and yet a (relatively) happy ending is crafted in such a manner that the resolution feels neither forced nor trite.
Richie DiMaso to Sydney: You may be from England, but you’re not royal and you have no banking connections.
Amy’s character is in fact a smalltime confidence trickster from America, though her English accent as the aristocratic Lady Edith is never less than impeccable. Amy has shown us this keen ear for accents before, and perhaps her upbringing at a US base on Italian soil helped her in this respect. Here, she switches seamlessly between the crisp inflections of Queen’s English and the broader notes of the New York patois as and when a scene demands it.
Director Zack Snyder, upon casting Amy for the role of Lois Lane in Man of Steel, released the same year, praised her as “one of the most versatile and respected actresses in films today”. Her electric performance in American Hustle is testament to this praise, earning Amy a Golden Globe Award and leading to her fifth Oscar nomination – her first in the Best Actress category.
Through it all, she manages to convey a brittle inner strength, a fixed determination to succeed, and an internal restlessness that makes her romance with Irving and romantic complications with Richie a whirlwind of unspoken tensions and subtle emotional intensities.
Sydney is a paradox, but that’s okay; in real life people are often paradoxical, riven by their own fault-lines. And she’s in good company here, in a movie where there is no black and no white, but a whole spectrum of nuance.
Sydney Prosser: You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.
Somewhat unusually for a mainstream movie, American Hustle was both a critical and commercial success. Made on a shooting budget of around $40,000,000 – comparatively modest for a Hollywood production – the film grossed over $150 million at the U.S Box Office and went on to perform equally well overseas.
If you haven’t seen American Hustle, then watch it. If you already have, then watch it again, because in a story this fast-moving and elaborate, the chances are good that you’ve missed something, somewhere.
Savor a film in which every character is allowed the chance to shine, a film notable for having two particularly strong female leads, in the shape of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, working from a script that consistently delivers inventive dialogue and some killer lines.
Upon its release, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss described the movie as “the sharpest, most exhilarating comedy in years.” As of the time of writing, three years has slipped by, and this statement still holds up to scrutiny.
In terms of comedy, American Hustle is black as pitch and verging on the hysterical, in the original sense of the word. As a piece of film-making, it’s exciting stuff, and for Amy Adams, represents another excellent feather to add to her already commendable cap.