By Mike Dub
Hollywood has a natural fascination with the con game. Filmmakers tend to have a certain ease depicting people who are constantly “in character,” who set up elaborate plots of misdirection and deception. It’s no coincidence that American Hustle is nominated for a bunch of Oscars this year, coming on the heel of last year’s Best Picture winner Argo: both are films about a con artist in over his head, working with amateurs in a dangerous scheme with life or death implications.
They also both deal with the process of moviemaking – Argo explicitly, American Hustle in its subtext. Fortunately, American Hustle is more playful, more confident, and just an overall better film than Argo. Unfortunately, American Hustle is no subtler than Argo, and while that flaw was destined to work in its favor come Oscar time, it is a flaw that compromises an otherwise very good movie.
American Hustle revolves around a trio of expert manipulators: Irving (Christian Bale), a small-time crook who fleeces cash-poor credit addicts; Sydney (Amy Adams), his paramour and partner in crime; and Richie (Bradley Cooper, shockingly good), an ambitious FBI agent who coerces the two con artists into helping nab some corrupt politicians.
The relationships between the three are all founded on a series of intertwining lies, hustles and manipulations, each holding power over another in one way, subservient to their power in another. All three engage in a complex power dynamic that is constantly in flux.
If Sydney is impenetrable, playing both men off each other, the two men slip easily into a creative process that is part collaboration, part power struggle. Their relationship develops much like that of a producer and a director making a film. Armed with the threat of a long prison sentence, Richie pulls Irving’s strings, as he also squeezes every bureaucratic penny he can from his bookish supervisor (brilliantly played by the scene-stealing Louis CK).
Richie is the boss of the operation, and constantly reminds Irving of that fact. However, even he must eventually concede to Irving’s con artist expertise. In a scene where they explain the con they are about to perform, Richie advises a supporting performer to follow Irving’s instructions. “But I thought you were the boss,” the actor says to Richie. Richie responds, “I am, but it’s his vision.”
American Hustle is about the collaborative creative process as much as it is about an elaborate con to weed out political corruption, even in the way that the movie was shot. The filmmakers have revealed in interviews that much of the film was improvised, and that the story structure changed drastically as the characters developed during production.
While that kind of approach to filmmaking may have produced some wonderful performances, it is not without its drawbacks. There are several brilliant scenes, and they probably work so well because of the freedom everyone was given to dive into the characters. However, it is precisely because of that free-form approach that the narrative loses its footing in the final third.
The entire last act of the movie is riddled with clichéd twists, self-important statements, and pat, crowd-pleasing sentimentality, all of which are absent from the first two thirds of the movie. Everything that was rich and subtle earlier in the film becomes obvious and overtly explained. The payoff to the con is disappointing and shallow, with exactly the wrong notes of simplicity and comeuppance.
A key detail of the con relies on the overwhelming stupidity of several key people in the FBI. An important character assures us that everything will be okay, despite everything we’ve come to know. Key plot points and epiphanies about characters are explicitly explained through dialogue and even reinforced through voiceover.
But until that last act, American Hustle is an energetic, fun and deceptively cutting film with some stunning sequences and terrific performances. It also invigorates an old genre with a nuanced perspective, asking a difficult question: when corruption is so deeply embedded into every aspect of our lives, what are the unintended consequences of rooting it out? In the end, we’re all just playing our roles in someone else’s vision, trying to survive.