“Some of this actually happened.”
— Opening Title of American Hustle (2013)
I have always been surprised by how much some people hate the 2013 best picture nominee, American Hustle. Even two years after the film was first released, you’ll still find people whining that the film felt like David O. Russell’s attempt to remake Goodfellas (yes, I have actually seen more than a few people online making this idiotic claim) or claiming that the movie was overrated or that there wasn’t anyone in the film that they could root for. While every film has its detractors, I’m always a little bit taken aback by just how passionately some people dislike this film.
Some of it, of course, is because the film that beat American Hustle for best picture was the universally acclaimed 12 Years A Slave. As hard as it may seem to believe now, there were a lot of people who thought that American Hustle might actually beat 12 Years A Slave. Strangely enough, a lot of online film bloggers tend to take a Manichaen approach to the Oscars, viewing each year’s race in terms of good and evil. The film that they want to win represents good and, therefore, every competing film must represent evil. It’s a pretty stupid and immature way of looking at things but, then again, the stupid and immature approach has worked pretty well for Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams over at AwardsDaily.com so who am I to criticize?
Of course, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the majority of American Hustle‘s most strident online critics have been male. I imagine that they watched the film and, in Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, they saw every unresolved crush of their adolescence. When Amy Adams successfully fooled Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, these critics saw themselves being fooled. When Jennifer Lawrence called Bale a “sick son of a bitch,” these critics felt that they were being called a sick son of a bitch. American Hustle is a film about men who don’t know how to talk to women and that probably struck a little too close to home for a lot of those online critics.
(I imagine that the majority of online American Hustle haters probably preferred Rooney Mara’s version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Noomi Rapace’s.)
Of course, the truth of the matter is that American Hustle was one of the best films of a very good year. Of all the films nominated for best picture of 2013, American Hustle was my personal favorite.
Based, very loosely, on true story, American Hustle is a period piece. It takes place in the late 70s, which of course means that we get a lot of great music, a scene in a disco, and clothes that are both somehow ludicrous and to die for at the same time. It’s a glamorous film about glamorous people doing glamorous and not-so-glamorous things and how can you not love that?
Irving (Christian Bale, giving a brave performance) is a generally nice guy who also happens to be a con artist. His unlikely partner is Sydney (Amy Adams), a former stripper turned Cosmo intern. When Sydney is working with Irving, she takes on a totally different identity and tells people that she’s Lady Edith Greensly, a British aristocrat who has international banking connections. When Sydney plays Edith, she speaks in a posh British accent and what’s interesting is that her accent is often (deliberately) inconsistent. However, as Irving points out, it doesn’t matter whether her accent is a 100% convincing or not. What’s important is that people want her to be Lady Edith Greensly and people will make excuses for almost anything as long as it confirms what they want to believe.
Eventually, Irving and Sydney are arrested by ambitious and highly strung FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie, who spends a good deal of the film with curlers in his hair, lives with his mother and has a boring fiancée who he doesn’t seem to like very much. (Richie is also briefly seen sniffing coke, which might explain a lot of his more extreme behavior.) Richie wants to make a name for himself and he views Irving and Sydney as his way to do so. He blackmails them into helping him set up and arrest crooked politicians and businessmen. Richie also finds himself growing obsessed with Sydney, who he believes to be English even after she tells him that she isn’t.
All of this eventually leads to Irving and Richie setting up the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Polito, who may be corrupt but who also seems to sincerely care about helping the citizens of his town, wants to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. Irving and Richie introduce him to FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Pena), who is disguised as Sheik Abdullah and who they claim is interested in investing in Carmine’s plans. This, of course, leads to a meeting both with a local Mafia don (Robert De Niro) and with several politicians who agree to help out the Sheik out in exchange for money.
(And no, the film did not lie. This is based on a true story, believe it or not.)
Complicating things is the fact that Irving himself comes to truly like the generous and big-hearted Carmine and how can you not? When the film was first released, Jeremy Renner was a bit overshadowed by Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence. However, Renner gives the best performance in the film, playing Carmine with a disarming mix of innocence and shrewdness. He’s the type of guy who is smart enough to walk out on the first meeting with the fake sheik’s associates but who is still naive enough that he can be charmed by Irving. When the fake sheik gives Carmine an equally fake knife as a gift, the look of genuine honor on Carmine’s face is heart-breaking.
The other big complication is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Rosalyn is jealous, unstable, unpredictable, and, in her own way, one of the smarter people in the film. She’s also a bit of pyromaniac and, when she accidentally blows up a new microwave, you’re really not surprised. (And, when Rosalyn starts to obsessively clean the house while singing Live and Let Die at the top of her lungs, I felt like I was watching a blonde version of myself.) When Rosalyn starts to have an affair of her own, it leads to American Hustle‘s satisfying and twisty conclusion.
(Again, a lot of the same online toadsuckers who irrationally hate American Hustle seem to hold a particular contempt to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in this film, as if to acknowledge that Lawrence — as always — kicks ass would somehow be a betrayal of Lupita Nyong’o’s award-winning performance in 12 Years A Slave.)
Don’t listen to the haters. American Hustle is a great film, a stylish and frequently funny look at politics, corruption, and the ways that people con themselves into believing what they want and need to be true.