Directed by David O. Russell
After a brilliant end to 2012 with Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell again provides us with Oscar bait for 2013 in American Hustle. Inspired by the true story of the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation, Russell gives us another movie that is well acted, but lacking in the overall script and story-telling that he has come to be known for. Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant in a supporting role as an unstable New Jersey housewife to a conman embodied (literally) by Christian Bale whose appearance is as far from Bruce Wayne as he can get. The trouble begins when Bale’s character falls in love with Amy Adams and he brings her in to his money lending cons, only to eventually get busted and exploited by an FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper.
If this sounds like an awkwardly long set up, it is. Most of what happens in the first half hour of the film seems committed to explaining cons that don’t end up mattering to the rest of the film. The real plot of the film takes off after Cooper’s FBI character enlists Bale and Adams in order to run a scam on the pretense of catching white collar criminals. This scam morphs into ABSCAM, the reality of which you can read about here. Suffice it to say that Cooper tries to enlarge the sting to catch not only politicians, but also the mob as both work to build and bilk Atlantic City gambling.
Despite tremendous acting from especially Bale and Lawrence, the film lacks a strong sense of direction or purpose. You might think it is a kind of historical period piece, but it’s not at all clear how much of what’s represented actually happened. The film doesn’t pretend to be more accurate than it is either, beginning by telling the audience only that “Some of this actually happened.” Such ambiguity gives the film a tongue-in-cheek quality which leads you to believe it’s more in line with the absurdist story-telling of Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. And this might be the case, except…
The late 70s setting, the use of both Bale and Adams as complementary but incomplete narrators, and the inclusion of an uncredited Robert De Niro as overly violent mob boss (including a flashback of his committing a brutal murder) are reminiscent of the episodic, multidimensional story telling employed by Scorsese in Goodfellas. When Lawrence outs her husband Bale as working with the “IRS” to her mob enforcer boyfriend, and the next scene is her singing along to “Live and Let Die” as the mob enforcer “invites” Bale to go for a ride, it makes little sense that Bale not only survives, but engages in a comic confrontation with Lawrence about the ordeal. Can you imagine Goodfellas where Stacks just gets a stern talking to? Exactly.
You might assume then, that the movie is a film about a clever con on the order of The Sting or even The Grifters. But the con that dominates the film, ABSCAM, is so stupidly simple as to be about as interesting as the FBI tapes it is based on. So the movie is mostly about character development rather than the scam itself. There is the question of figuring out how Bale and Adams succeed in conning their way out from under Cooper, which after Bale survives his brush with the mob you come to expect, and when it happens, it’s pretty well clear.
Overall the best word to describe this film is uneven. Is it a comedy? Is it a love triangle? A historical drama? It is possible to be all of these, but the film lurches from one to the other in such a way as to be more confusing than entertaining. The best example of this (apart from what I’ve already said) are the interactions between the over eager Cooper bent on setting up a big, expensive sting operation, and his conservative boss at the FBI played by Louis C.K. The interactions between them have all the makings of comedy which can be expected with Louis C.K. in the mix, but when the unravelling Cooper hears one bureaucratic “No” too many he travels to C.K.’s office and beats him badly enough to put him in a neck brace and eye patch.
It’s not at all clear whether as the viewer I was supposed to find this funny or be horrified by it. The scene in which the beating is revealed is C.K.’s testimony about the incident to his superior, but Russell cuts the scene in such a way as to rob it of the horror. Combined with a natural ambivalence for bureaucrats, I wondered, are we supposed to be more horrified at Cooper’s violence or C.K.’s bureaucratic intransigence? I’m still not sure.
The most interesting aspect of the story telling, which makes the film unique, is its apparent defense of politicians and critique of muckraking authorities and journalists. The central politician in the film, Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden (played by Jeremy Renner), a fictional character based on real life Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti, is described as a politician who loves and is loved by the people he serves. At one point in the film, Bale tells Cooper that rather than dirty politicians it is Cooper and the people who try to tear down public officials that are ruining the country. He says people have only begun to put faith back in government after Watergate and Cooper wants to take that away again.
I was surprised by the overt defense of politicians, one of the most unpopular groups in the country. I was, however, sympathetic. As coincidence would have it, I saw this film only days after reading a Rolling Stone article on the downfall of Camden in the wake of plant closings in the late 1970s and 1980s. Camden, a once diverse working class community descended into racial violence and drug crime until it was eventually all but abandoned by law enforcement.
Watching the film in this context, Mayor Polito was portrayed as the person who might have been able to prevent that outcome given his broad popular support especially across ethnic and racial lines. More broadly I’d argue that faith in the public sphere as a means to work toward the common good is the only thing that could have prevented Camden’s downfall. The film seems to be saying that ABSCAM not only prevented Camden’s salvation, but contributed more broadly to a culture of decline and cynicism that prevents the solving of problems.
I’m not sure how I feel about it. A corrupt politician is a corrupt politician, after all. Perhaps though, it is time to re-evaluate the legacy of Watergate and ABSCAM. The irony is that despite an increased focus on the private and professional shortcomings of politicians, our politicians seem to be less high minded and our politics more broken than ever before. It is almost as if the increased scrutiny makes politics only attractive to people who lack shame about their greed and narcissism. We may be caught in a kind of downward spiral where the more cynical we become the worse people are elected to politics. It’s difficult to say, but it is a worthy question and, along with the acting, the primary contribution of an otherwise uneven film.