It is possible to walk away from David O. Russell’s American Hustle with an unchallenged, unalloyed understanding of the word “American”— the quantity of leisure suits and Jersey accents alone put to rest any doubts about which America we’re dealing with. The same can’t be said of that other word, “hustle.” There is too much ambiguity in it, too many possible hustles contending for the titular honor.
The pace of the film is, itself, a brisk hustle. Opening with the droll disclaimer, “Some of this actually happened,” Hustle is based on the stranger-than-fiction FBI operation, “Abscam,” of the late 1970s, and must operate (mostly) within the strictures of actual history. In real life, things can take a long time to happen, and even then not all of those happenings make for very interesting cinema. So Russell seems, at times, to play the part of an impatient father fast-forwarding to the better bits of a home video. Or, to make a comparison more befitting his accomplishment, Russell comes off a little like Shakespeare in his historical plays— cherry-picking events and places within the constraints of actual history in which to stage his own novel, imaginative production. But for both artists this requires rapid pacing, made possible largely by cuts and transitions that leave the audience unsure of how much time has passed between scenes, and certain that characters have had significant meetings and exchanges offstage.
For Russell, it also requires heavy reliance on montage. The action opens, in media res, with one of the better bits. Small-to-medium-time con artist, Irving (a pot-bellied Bale), stripper-turned-fleecer, Sydney (Amy Adams), and their neurotic FBI handler, Richie (Bradley Cooper), are in a bugged hotel room trying to press a briefcase full of cash into the hands of a New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner’s most convincing role, and pompadour, to date). The tensions in the room are already palpable, but the roles and relationships are ambiguous and the audience has to be brought up to speed. To that end, the focus backs up to the point, years earlier, when Sydney and Irving first meet. Another good bit: the two connect over jazz in the back room of a January pool party—Duke Ellington in swimsuits and fur coats. From there, a good twenty minutes are devoted to montage segments: Sydney becomes Irving’s mistress, drawn to his self-assured kavorka, then his accomplice in a fake loansharking operation, and finally his fall-guy after they attempt to con the undercover Richie.
The focus returns to that bugged hotel room, the audience now cognizant of the hustle taking place there. Richie has compelled Irving and Sydney to help him entrap corrupt politicians with bribe money from a fictional Arab sheikh looking to invest in the ailing Atlantic City. As central as money is to the plot, though, it was oddly forgettable. In conflict and movement, American Hustle resembles Russell’s earlier film, Three Kings. Four soldiers are trying to get rich quick in the confused twilight of another real event, the Gulf War. While Three Kings offers a pile of Kuwaiti gold constantly looming at the edge of our (and the characters’) attention, Hustle allows its audience to forget almost entirely about the cash that’s at stake. Instead, the currency of the realm seems to be love, or something like it. “Always take the favor over money,” Irving tells Carmine in a moment of sincerity, laughingly attributing the advice to Jesus. These souls need something more than money, but whatever it is, there isn’t enough to go around. The central characters are constantly fabricating new identities for themselves in attempts to coax and steal it from one another.
Hustle’s first scene, an extended shot of Christian Bale arranging an elaborate hairpiece-comb-over combo, is an adequate introduction to every major player in the film: anxiety and imperfection held together with hairspray and spirit gum. Everyone is putting on a show, everyone has their hustle, but they all seem to have satisfyingly human motivations, none of them ultimately financial in nature (even Renner’s corrupt politician turns out to be a decent guy, corrupt for all the right reasons).
In the film’s most arresting scene, Sydney and Richie— whose name is an ironic lie about his emotional neediness (his last name, Dimaso, may have an even less charitable cognate)— nearly have sex in a dancehall bathroom (after doing a dance loosely resembling the hustle). He begs for love, in every sense, and almost gets it. Sydney talks him down, though— they should wait, until it’s “real”— and after pushing him out of the stall, dissolves into an affecting fit of Dionysian laughter. Whether that laughter is maniacal revelry, unhinged amusement, or an outpouring of honest ecstasy is never entirely clear, maybe even to Sydney (maybe even to Adams). Is she playing him, in love with him, insane? The needs and disguises have piled too high for anyone to tell, and it feels right. Anything clearer would be unreal.
Like its characters, the “hustle” of American Hustle is continually reinventing itself, but perhaps the most satisfying hustle is the one that never comes. Any veteran viewer of the genre will watch the film waiting to find out that he has been fooled or double-crossed. Most con movies haven’t done their job until they’ve pulled the wool over the eyes of characters and audience alike. Far from predictable, even the unforeseen developments late in the film come as a surprise to the viewer without coming at the expense of the viewer. Hustle’s final surprises and reversals are not like the moments in Agatha Christie (or, say, any of the Ocean’s movies) where the author proves that she’s so much cleverer than you by revealing information you never possessed. They’re rather like those final assurances, in Miracle On 34th Street, that the old man in the Macy’s parade really is who he claims to be, or something just as good.
When the hustles are all played out and the dust has settled, nothing and no one is perfect. Small measures of justice are balanced by equal measures of injustice. Or, rather, justice is too blind to separate shades of gray, and offers no solace. Irving, Sydney, and the rest are left to go on reinventing themselves in order to make it. “The art of survival is a story that never ends,” Irving opines in voiceover. Doesn’t get more American than that.