I’d heard American Hustle billed as a period piece Ocean’s Eleven. I didn’t find it that clever (plot twist wise) or hilarious, but David O. Russell again takes a reasonably straightforward plot (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) and turns it into an engaging piece. Seriously, how else can you explain a man applying his hairpiece actually serving as a compelling introduction?
Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) watched his father flounder as other people pushed him around, and at an early age, he broke windows on his own to increase his father’s glass business. We see that his motivations to make sure that he “survive” have continued in his life as a con, where he acquires upfront money for those in needs of a loan without ever planning on paying them back. His wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), appreciates the lifestyle he provides her, but not his partner-in-crime, Sydney (Adams), who he sees as his equal.
When the two cons are caught in a sting by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), they’re forced to turn their attention to several political figures, including Mayor Polito (Renner), and the Mob (Robert DeNiro shows up). DiMaso’s boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), isn’t keen on DiMaso’s ambitious plan to go after bigger and bigger fish, but Rosenfeld is a smooth talker, and they get in deeper.
That’s about the extent of the plot. Russell’s focus is on the people, their brokenness and their plots aimed at freeing themselves from the downward spiral. None of them think they deserve what they are, or the anguish they face, but they all continue to try to extricate themselves by practicing the same deceits. Can they free themselves this way or is it simply more of the same?
Most of us secretly want to be free of our addictions or sin, but we often try to do it on our own. We think we can work harder or do better (Lecrae), or that sooner or later, we’ll just be able to leave that life behind us, like we haven’t tried to before. But we can’t be free, just like the sacrifices of the animals in the Old Testament couldn’t keep people living right with God. We needed a Savior, and Jesus was the only one who could get it done. Jesus had to break the cycle for us, because we couldn’t do it on our own.
Ultimately, American Hustle is sometimes clever, sometimes funny, and its characters are engaging. DiMaso is so over the top, I couldn’t tell if I disliked him or Cooper for the way he played them. But Rosenfeld’s earnestness almost makes me forget that he’s bilked people out of money that they earned (even if he tells us that they deserved it). The American Dream here has been corrupted, both from the side of the government and the cons, and in the end, this serves as a tale of what we could become if we’re not careful.