Director: David O Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Runner
“Everyone hustles to survive”, says the tagline. And in this latest award-scooping film by Russell, they start that exercise with their hair. Right from when the film begins, with Irving (Bale) elaborately transforming his nearly bald pate into a fashionably unswept mane, it’s clear that to each person in this film, appearance is the first part of who s/he wants to be seen as.
“People believe what they want to believe,” is American Hustle’s second-most repeated line. And it’s easy to see why the film is scooping those awards. For it may be about two con artists, an ambitious FBI agent, and a showman, if do-gooder politician, but rarely will you see character sketches as detailed about largely middle-aged people dealing with “the art of survival”.
Irving has been running small cons all his life till he meets Sydney (Adams) at a party and is hooked. She is smart, hungry for an opportunity, and can pull off an English accent that gives Irving’s business the class it desperately needs. Their luck runs out though when FBI agent Richard (Cooper) catches up with them, and decides to rope them in to catch some bigger fish.
Richard too is enamoured with Sydney, for the touch of genuine glamour she represents in their sordid lives. However, Irving and Richard are studies in contrast, the first hesitant and careful, even surprisingly wise, the second increasingly brash and arrogant.
Lawrence plays the role of Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn. She claims to be depressed and rarely ventures out of home, but as Sydney quickly surmises, she is actually using this and her son to manipulate Irving. Lawrence, who continues to surprise in the kind of range she has displayed, is brilliant as the seemingly dumb wife in her velvety chamber, who has the habit of comparing life to “perfumy” nail paint and of drinking too much, but who knows just the right buttons to press when needed. And in the elaborate charade that Richard is building, which grows larger and larger much to Irving’s discomfort, she is the one weak link. And she knows and uses it.
Runner is a mayor hoping to build casinos to provide jobs in New Jersey, and needing money for it. He and Irving strike an unusual friendship as Richard goads him on to entrap the mayor, and through him other politicians. Runner’s wife has a small part, but in this film’s unusually striking roles for women, she leaves a lasting impression.
Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) again has his characters not just talking but really conversing with one another, seeking to connect at different levels.
And if that holds true the most for anyone — and despite the Golden Globes nominating but not awarding him — it’s Bale, with his floral shirts and his undisguised paunch. Beneath that mop and behind those large sunglasses, there’s hardly anything you see of his face. However, that’s all he needs to convey joy, love and warmth or resignation, defeat and incredulity. People believe what they want to believe. And in a film about living lies, you cannot but believe him.