“Some of it is true.”
These words introduce David O. Russell’s latest film American Hustle. Films “based on a true story” have a tendency to change real life events to make it more fitting for the story (including Argo minimizing Canada’s involvement in the diplomats’ rescue from Iran). Though it is one of six films nominated this year for Best Picture to be “based on a true story”, it is the only one to openly admit it has exaggerated and falsified the true events. As Russell has stated in interviews, he is not interested in accurately capturing events. He’s interested in an accurate depiction of the people in his films. This line is fitting sonce deception is the name of the game for the characters in American Hustle. Nearly every character has a façade and only a very few are truly honest.
The opening scene of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) preparing his intricately detailed comb-over shows a hint of the man’s skill of deception 1. Not much of a looker with a balding head and a bulging belly, he makes up for it with charismatic confidence. It is the confidence that attracts Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a secretary who can slip into an accent without effort. Seeing a remarkable, intelligent woman, Irving returns the affection. Together, they become the perfect partners in crime. Under the fake identity of “Lady Edith”, Sydney lures gullible men to Rosenfeld, where they pay him in hopes of a bigger loan. They would be together if it weren’t for Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a bonkers stay-at-home mom.
But then Sydney is busted by curly-haired FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso uses this to lure Irving and Sydney into collaborating on ABSCAM, a sting operation designed to take down corrupt politicians. Irving and Sydney (still under Lady Edith) charm politicians into meeting with a Sheik to offer a “donation”. The FBI tapes them taking a bribe and boom the authorities come in with handcuffs. If you want to learn more about the real life heist, I recommend The Sting Man by Robert W. Greene.
Like I said before, Russell’s focus is not on events but on character. In particular, the effect people have on each other. In The Fighter, he depicts how family helps and hinders Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg)’s boxing career. In Silver Lining’s Playbook, he depicts what it’s like living with someone with Bipolar Disorder and what it’s like to live with it. Here, he looks at the various ways people deceive others and themselves. Sydney lures gullible men with a fake British accent (including DiMaso) and her physique. 2 Irving uses charisma. DiMaso manipulates the FBI system to get his way. Politicians take back handed “donations” in high priced hotels. The only truly honest characters are Rosalyn and Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey Mayor, too nice for his own good. He is also one of DiMaso’s targets.
These deceptions also reveal the complexity of each character. Irving may be a con but he is also very romantic and a great father 3. DiMaso has delusions of grandeur and hides the fact that he still lives with his mom. Rosalyn can’t even work a microwave without destroying it and, yet, she hides a strategic mind under her loose cannon persona. But Sydney is the most complex, especially in her relationship between Irving and DiMaso. She plays both of them with her personas of Sydney (for Irving) and Lady Edith (for DiMaso), making Irving wonder who she’s in love with. DiMaso tells her Irving sold her out. Does she believe him? But soon, we find that she is starting to ask that question herself. In one emotionally complicated scene, she goes through the motion of shedding her Lady Edith personal for DiMaso, hesitantly revealing her true self.
Though it takes place in the 1970s, the themes of deception in American Hustle are relevant today. After the recession of 2008, people have felt deceived by their own government and their banks. Plus, everyone in a way has a façade, whether it is to fit in, to succeed or to manipulate. As David Mamet would say “Everybody talks in order to get what they want.”
1) It is also beginning of the many crazy hair styles in this film. Whether balding, curly or beehive, nearly every character has a crazy hair style. Even Robert De Niro cameos with a bald spot. In fact, people have been calling it “Wig Explosion: the movie.”
2) And a V-neck dress.
3) Much better than Rosalyn