By T.J. Carter
Occasionally, I’d like to use this site as a platform for the discussion of specific slices of media. In other words, I’d like to review movies, books, TV shows, and the rest; however, I don’t really like reviews. I feel uncomfortable judging pieces of art that talented people have worked hard to create. I don’t want to tear art a new one–I’d rather ignite a freewheelin’ discussion of what certain movies, books, TV shows, etc. add to our culture.
That said, I saw American Hustle the other night, and it totally blows.
Just kidding, I liked it quite a bit. Please read on.
For those who haven’t seen it yet, American Hustle is a semi-true story about con artists, lawmen, and what it means to be the good guy. Set in the late 1970s, American Hustle lurks in the shadow of the Vietnam War and Watergate–epic failures that left the American people feeling, well, hustled.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), is a bloated, comeover-rocking con artist who engages in loan fraud with Syndey Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper whose existential crisis leaves a void that is easily filled by Rosenfeld’s schemes. The two are eventually caught by an overly eager Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a manic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself. DiMaso gives the two con artists a choice: go to jail, or use their secret con artist magic to help entrap other criminals. With that premise in place, the film starts hustlin’.
It seems like most crime films are parables warning against the evils of greed. In this regard, American Hustle is no different. However, the so-called “criminals” aren’t the greedy ones–the law enforcers are.
Agent Richie DiMaso’s initial bargain with Rosenfeld and Prosser is to catch four low-level sleazebags. However, bigger fish keep swimming by and Agent Dimaso can’t seem to resist going after them. First a supposedly corrupt mayor, then a few corrupt Congressmen, and finally, the most notorious mobsters in New Jersey. DiMaso, a self-described “pencil-pusher,” isn’t eager to see justice served; he’s greedy for the recognition that comes with landing high-profile figures in jail. There are several amusing scenes in the film where DiMaso requests larger and larger chunks of the Bureau’s resources, and is rebuffed by his higher up (played by Louis C.K.). He grows more manic and petulant with each denial.
DiMaso’s greed is made all the more apparent by the fact that his main quarry–a mayor looking to acquire less-than-legal funds–is actually a pretty good guy. Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, NJ, is a bushy-tailed family man who is beloved by nearly all his
constituents. The only reason Polito is seeking funds from shady sources is because his bid to revive Atlantic City through legitimate means is stuck in bureaucratic hell. Regardless of where you stand on the legalization of gambling, you can really believe that Polito is trying hard to create jobs and give New Jersey’s economy a much-needed boost.
If Agent DiMaso had his druthers, Polito would be in jail, Atlantic City would remain a crime-ridden cesspit, and the people of New Jersey would bemoan yet another failure of their government. Is that justice? Like DiMaso isn’t after Polito for the sake of the country, but for the advancement of his own FBI career. This makes him at least as much a greedy con artist as Rosenfeld and Prosser.
At one point in the film, Rosenfeld (Bale) says something along the lines of “everyone cons everyone.” The title of the film doesn’t just describe the nefarious deeds of two American con artists, but of all Americans. Rosenfeld and Prosser con each other, DiMaso cons Rosenfeld and Prosser, and everyone cons Mayor Polito. Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) hilariously plays Irving like a balding, beer-bellied fiddle. One of the main things I took from American Hustle is that there are good guys and bad guys on both sides of the law. Though government regulations exist for a good reason, the most important rules are those ratified by the conscience.
American Hustle is set in 1978 and doesn’t let you forget it. The music, the colors, the clothes, and the HAIR! Almost every character in the film has ridiculous hair, complementing the film’s manic, larger-than-life tone. The set design is bright and lavish at times, drab and dingy at other times–often in rapid succession. The juxtaposition of depressing dry cleaner’s and lavish office, vivacious nightclub and filthy bathroom stall, ritzy bar and sketchy alleyway provides a sense of polarization. This is further asserted by each character’s extraordinary range of emotions and by 1970s America itself, which was marked by the scintillating pleasures of drugs, sex, and disco in an ice bath of wounded national pride and economic stagnation.
There’s a lot more to say about American Hustle, but I think I’ll leave it there. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture Musical/Comedy, and is nominated for 10 Academy Awards–including all the acting categories. Basically, American Hustle is “good” by all the traditional standards, and it couldn’t hurt to see it. I mean, it’s already been out for a month, so you probably have seen it. Just. . . just. . . do what you want.