Do the Hustle
The Abscam affair of the late 1970s, in which several American politicians were convicted of taking bribes, gave birth to the expression: “money talks, bullshit walks”. These famous words were uttered by a Congressman being surreptitiously filmed while receiving a suitcase filled with $50,000 in cash. Ironically this phrase is never spoken in David O. Russell’s fictionalized account of the scandal titled, “American Hustle”. The missing catchphrase is the raison d’etre for the central protagonists, a romantically involved con-artist couple. These people eat and breath the bottom line while carrying on a strange attachment which undercuts their transaction based world-view. Their lives are tested when they come under the scrutiny of a FBI agent whose motto might be “power talks, bullshit walks”. A tortured love triangle ensues set amidst the gritty “pre-Atlantic City ‘boom’/post NYC financial crisis ‘bust’” milieu of the Big Apple, Long Island and the Garden State. As someone who grew up in that area at that time I can vouch for the authenticity of the costuming and set-design. The acting was also superb. It is odd that such a finely crafted would fail.... but one leaves the theater with an odd feeling of missed opportunity. “American Hustle” is merely one of the best films this year.
The first half hour was a personal ‘trip down memory lane’. My exuberance might be clouded by a wistful fondness for era which is seen by others as a fashion and cultural nadir. The movie opens with wide lapel suited Christian Bale meticulously creating a comb-over hairdo to hide his baldness. The central protagonists are introduced, complete with repulsive clothes and tortured relationships. Bale is jealous of Bradley Cooper’s hold over Amy Adams. Cooper is envious of Bale’s ability to read people. Adams is angry about being trapped and beholden to both men. The plot is revealed in wonderful Scorsese voice-over combined with just the right amount of exposition mixed with mysteries waiting to unfold. There is a tension that propels the audience into the seedy world of cons, cops, politicians and the mob. It explores the root word of the term ‘con man’: ‘confidence’; which in turn leads us to “trust”; which in turn leaves to the very far-removed ‘love’. At heart this film is a romantic comedy. This turns out to be a problem as Adams, who delivers an exquisite performance, is opaque despite being the emotional linchpin of the story. The movie drifts off course immediately after the couple is busted. Cooper is an ambitious cop with an insatiable desire for success which in his world translates to overseeing high profile arrests. Despite his convincing portrayal, his role highlights the weakness in the characterization of Adams. Cooper plants the seeds of mistrust between the partners in crime. This leads to an extremely detailed discussion between Bale and Adams about ‘where they stand’. In witnessing these emotional negotiations the audiences channels the embarrassing voyeurism of eavesdropping on a teenage break-up or even worse; a marital impasse. It is dramatically unfulfilling and a pale substitution for a measure of their bond. This unfortunate scene repeats itself as Adams establishes a tie with Cooper. These complicated expository monologues are rooted in the lack of delineation in Adams’ character. Ironically the template for a successful rendering can be found in her love rival Jennifer Lawrence, who is the legal spouse of Bale.
There is no need for a handbook to understand Bale’s marriage. Lawrence possesses a charm that showcases her beauty and ugliness. The hideous narcissism intertwined with the childlike callowness is a perfect match for Bale’s need to be a family man and felon. Their initial attraction is as understandable as their eventual repulsion. This is best shown in one of the last scenes of them together. Her astounding carelessness has led to Bale’s near execution. There is a confrontation in which Lawrence stridently gains the upper hand by reading excerpts from a self-help best seller. Bale is overcome by bewilderment and defeat. This leads to an apology: FROM BALE. He is sorry that her stupidity almost killed him. He means it despite its illogical. This is the genius of Lawrence’s performance. She also manages summons this startling ability to dominate her opponents when facing Adams. In the midst of receiving a well deserved dressing down, in which Adams touches on her reckless drinking and inappropriate behavior, Lawrence kisses her and walks off. Adams is right, but Lawrence wins. That small moment touches on the larger problem of the Adams character: what does she want? Is her anger at Lawrence rooted in fear of blowing the scam and ruining herself? or destroying Cooper? or out of jealousy over Bale? Or both? Or none of the above? All the exposition about her being genuinely attached to Bale while feigning love with Cooper clouds her actions. This is a film about trust that is tied to love. Unfortunately Adams is almost too perfect at her character’s craft with the ironic result of the audience losing ‘confidence’. Once again this is a pitch perfect rendering. Adams played it as it ‘like a pro’. Romantic comedies, however, demand vulnerable love struck protagonists. Her fierce opaqueness forces the audience to see her love interests as marks, rather than partners.
The same puzzling professionalism plagues Cooper’s G-man. His ambition seems embedded in every strand of his meticulously coiffed head of permed hair. Is he a sociopath who is incapable of friendship and love? The brief view of his home life, featuring a dominating mother and an ignored fiancee, once again raises questions of character rather than giving the audience insight into his motives. His banter with his beleaguered boss, the comedian Louis CK, is also ambiguous. CK was a poor choice of a foil as his performance failed to have enough range to deliver the expectations he had of his underling. Did he see Cooper as merely a troublesome employee? a potential friend to mentor? Cooper returns the favor by being a friend and foe simultaneously. This is a hallmark of professional relationships but in a story about love and trust, it works against the audience’s ability to empathize with Cooper. Is he merely working the opposing characters or does he really care?
David O. Russell has a writing credit in addition to being the director. This work seemed plagued by overdrawing and over thinking. No doubt the ‘real life’ Bale had a side business in the fraudulent art market - but how does this serve the overall story? How does this help render Bale’s character? Why was his attachment to the NJ politician so important that he would actually make a face to face confession in his house in front of the mayor’s wife and children? The film firmly establishes Bale as someone who spent a career casually stealing from other family men. The unanswered questions stem from knowing too much and failing to hone down actual events into a concise story. This was a 100 minute tale and yet the end result clocks in nearly 20 minutes over the two hour mark. If Russell had exhibited the discipline to focus the narrative this film might have touched our heart rather than wowed our senses. The virtuosity of the production is amazing but the characters seemed weighted with unspoken off-script burdens. This might have been a fascinating multi-hour cable show or a less ambitious shorter feature. Unfortunately the current length renders it a splendid meandering journey. In the end we are left with characters whose actions are supported by the need to deliver a tidy finish, rather than a ‘real’ ending. It is too ‘real’ to be a light romantic comedy; yet too unreal to be a serious drama.
The ambiguousness can be intriguing, Adams and Cooper are fun to watch. It would have been more entertaining if Russell had abandoned exposition and explanation, for action. Less complicated talk about relationships and emotions would have lifted all boats; including Bale’s. Deliver an unabashed romantic comedy and forget all the history of what really a happened. Think of Lawrence: She is an insolent drunk with nothing to say. She spends her time burning toast, cleaning, having sex, complaining, breaking her fingernails, shopping and spewing nonsense.... but she is utterly captivating. She even manages to upstage Bale, who delivers a consummate performance of the mirror image of Horatio Alger. Let David Mamet and Thomas Mann gives us the mind of con men. This movie hints at confidence men in those brief moments without tricks or confidence; think Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in the original “Thomas Crown Affair”. In order to care we must trust, in some measure, that everything isn’t a transaction. This superbly rendered feature plays the audience into believing in its wonder. Unfortunately the distinct parts are better than the sum. In the end, it doesn’t add up. It’s a good film pretending to be great. True passion talks, bullshit walks.