American Hustle is built on deception — both the way we fool others and the lies we tell ourselves — so it makes sense that director David O. Russell manipulates narrative time and real-world influences to create something that’s simultaneously effective and misleading. The screenplay was originally titled American Bullshit, written by Eric Warren Singer, and focused on “the true story of Abscam, the FBI’s 1980 undercover sting operation of Congress to root out corruption which was the brainchild of the world’s greatest con man.” It landed on the 2010 edition of the Hollywood Blacklist, the annual round-up of the industry’s favorite unproduced scripts, but Russell’s rewritten version doesn’t look anything like that description. He even kicks things off with a blunt title card that simply reads: “Some of this actually happened.” The film does deal with con men and law enforcement, but it creates a parallel universe version of Abscam, sharing nothing but the name. Russell’s also unafraid to play loosely with pop culture in that universe, too: the film is in the late 1970s, yet the mostly period soundtrack also includes an ELO song from 2001, just for the vibe. And before the film even starts, it’s pretending to be something it’s not: it uses an old version of the Columbia Pictures logo, as well as retro-styled versions of logos for production companies, as if to announce its arrival from the past via time travel, and not as a present-day work that examines that past through the lens of history and experience.
So what could the point be of all this double-dealing? Why rig fake logos, mess with the music, and invent your own version of Abscam people with characters who never existed? Why tell a new story and pretend its just a tweaked version of the old one? Why not stand by the power of fiction instead of pretending it’s rooted in fact?
Because a lie always looks better when it’s a little bit true. We’ll dismiss out of hand those statements that feel totally improbable, but the ones that use things we know to be true — facts, people, our own experience — are harder to untangle. From a storytelling standpoint, you get an extra oomph when you claim to be based on a true story, even if the final product is so far removed from historical fact that it makes no sense to claim kinship with it. Watching American Hustle to learn about Abscam would be like reading Wikipedia to learn how perform brain surgery, but the film still gets some juice for looking just enough like real life to fool us for a moment. And in those moments, we forget the levels of fakery and connect with what’s happening on screen. So the lies, inspired by the truth, wind up coming full circle to inspire a truth of their own. What’s more, Russell can be up front about his reshaping of the truth and get style points for honesty.
As scam stories go, it’s a good one. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) — pot-bellied, hair combed over — makes a living managing a few dry cleaners New York City, fencing forged art, and ripping people off by promising to take their $5,000 and multiply it tenfold with foreign banking interests that somehow never pan out. His operation really starts to take off when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who becomes his girlfriend and helps his operations by posing as British aristocracy when dealing with marks. They’re good at what they do, but not perfect, and eventually they’re caught in the act by an FBI team led by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie promises to cut them loose if they help him set up a few more stings, but he’s more driven by power and the allure of control than even he realizes, so the end of the tunnel keeps getting further away from Irving and Sydney.
What makes the film so strong is, in part, is total lack of moral reckoning. It’s not that there aren’t good guys or bad guys here, or rather, people less or more willing to take advantage of others; it’s that Russell’s able to find a way to empathize with all of them and to withhold from passing judgment. This is a lot harder to do than it sounds like, and Russell’s able to pull it off because the plot is always secondary to his desire to find darkly comic ways to explore a series of mercurial relationships. He does this by acting like a con man in his own right, parceling out information to the viewer with casual reveals that keep the floor shifting under your feet. After we’ve spent plenty of time with Irving and Sydney, watching him fall in love with her, listening to their alternating voice-overs as they talk about fidelity and companionship, we go with Irving to a house in the suburbs and find out he’s already married. His wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is much younger, and she’s got a son from a previous relationship whom Irving has adopted as his own. Twists like this serve multiple purposes: as viewers, we become implicated in Irving’s deeds without knowing it until it’s too late, and we’ve already built up sympathy for him by the time we find out he’s not just a con, but one who cheats on his wife even as he bristles with anger and wounded pride that she might one day do the same. But they also underscore the film’s pliable nature with truth. Nothing you see can be taken for granted as true within the context of the film’s world. There’s always an angle, a motivation, that you don’t know and might never discover.
That caginess manifests itself best in Irving, thanks to Bale. So much of the movie is over the top, and Bale’s figure and hair are no exceptions, but his character stands out from all the others because of Bale’s remarkable restraint. He’s not playing a type or a caricature. His Irving is a man insecure enough about his looks to engineer a complicated comb-over that requires glue and spray to assemble, but also confident enough to take that comb-over out into the world with his head high. He’s wounded, egotistical, conflicted, genuinely in love with two people, and wary of getting in over his head. He’s the opposite of pretty much every crime figure you’re gonna get in movies like this one, and Bale’s performance is invigorating.
The tension between the players drives the rest of the film: Irving’s love for Sydney buts against her willingness to play ball with the feds; Richie’s lust for Sydney makes him more willing to test the limits set by his bosses; Sydney’s desire to escape her own plain past winds up getting her into ever more trouble; and Rosalyn’s jealousy and anger are checked by the love she still feels for her husband. Nobody gets out clean, if only because nobody ever gets out of anything clean. There’s no simple goal here, just a group of people with conflicting goals. That fluidity keeps the film from getting bogged down, and it also lets Russell explore the relational power struggles that have highlighted his best films. There’s a reason he focuses so much here on hands, hair, and clothing, moving the camera in and around these people to bear witness to the constructs they’ve built. Everything is about the masks we wear and how we use them to bend others to our will. One of the best musical cues in the film is a Steely Dan tune that says in part, “I’m a fool to do your dirty work,” set to footage of those fools doing the work anyway.
Don’t think that all that makes for a dour experience, though. Russell brings a brisk, darkly comic tone to the film. He scores most of it with bittersweet pop ballads from the era that perfectly capture the feeling of something slick on the outside but rotten underneath, and there’s an inescapable verve to the way he handles the sprawling story. The con artists are working schmucks, and most of the feds are power-hungry bureaucrats. The sole voice of reason — Richie’s supervisor, played by a beleaguered Louis C.K. — is shouted down at every turn. This isn’t a message movie. Crime pays and it doesn’t, the law works and it doesn’t. When bigger and bigger political targets become the focus of Richie’s sting operations, Irving feels sorry for them. They don’t have “larceny in their blood,” as he laments. They’re just out trying to make a buck. They did it before all this went down, and they’ll do it again. Everybody hustles, Russell’s saying, and that goes for him, too. He’s made a slick, entertaining, tricky movie that hangs together even when it almost shouldn’t. That’s the power of intention, as one of his characters might say. Some of this actually happened.