American Hustle is like a dream come true for an actor. Looking at those amazing performances you cannot imagine anyone turning down a role in this movie. Every character is interesting and different from anyone else, there are so many nuances that’s it’s both a challenge and a blessing for every performer. The acting is as energetic as David O. Russell’s direction and you can feel the enjoyment everyone probably had while making this movie, but also the exhaustion of inhabiting and showing these characters, who constantly upset each other and live at the edge of a heart attack. It’s a great movie, entertaining and thought-provoking. The story, based on the ABSCAM scandal, is not easy to follow and it’s probably hard to understand what exactly everyone is doing, but since the movie is mainly there to showcase its characters, that is only a minor flaw.
The thematic heart of the movie is pretense, one of the three flawed pillars of our society (next to authority and ignorance), which I have to explain some more in a future post. The movie’s protagonists are con artists, so pretense is essentially their job. But what differentiates this movie from many other con movies is that it’s not simply a cool thing they can do, it also affects their lives. And everyone is pretending in this movie! The way it is shown, it becomes clear that our society fosters pretense, it expects you to play a role that not necessarily fits your feelings and instincts. Our inherit identity is not as important as the role our culture finds for us. The characters in American Hustle personify this attitude by basically not having their own identities or by trying to escape them. Just looking at the importance of their clothes/costumes makes that clear.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable and absolutely perfect) is the main character and the master of playing roles. The very first scene (not unintentionally setting the thematic tone for the movie) shows him getting dressed, propping his hair meticulously and covering his eyes with sunglasses. He still looks ridiculous, but he tries his best to hide his real face and body to be someone more presentable. It’s interesting because Irving wins people over with his charms and wits, not by his looks. But he still has to get a foot in the door, so he has to dress up. When his hair is ruffled up in a following scene, his eyes speak murder and his partner is very concerned. His looks, or more his role, are everything to him and the whole opening of the movie makes this aspect perfectly clear.
He is in love with Sydney, but he insists on playing his role as a father and husband. And his philosophy is explicitly stated in the beginning:
As far as I could see people were always conning each other to get what they wanted. We even con ourselves, we talk ourselves into things, you know, we sell ourselves things we then maybe don’t even need or want. Y’know, we’re dressing them up. We leave out the risk, we leave out the ugly truth. Pay attention to that, cause we’re all conning ourselves one way or another, just to get through life.
So, you have to pretend to survive, it’s as simple as that. You have to betray yourself and then even pretend that it’s not betrayal. The way he puts it, it’s the most casual thing in the world, or to be more precise, in our society. “People believe what they wanna believe” he claims later and as common as that saying is, it’s the perfect explanation why so many things can even be the way they are in our society. “This is the way the world works,” he continues, “not black and white, like you say, extremely grey.” He sees through the mechanisms of our society and still steps in its pitfalls, which makes him all the more interesting. He has real feelings of love for Sidney and real feelings of friendship for Polito, but he only realizes how valuable these are at the end. First he destroys them by pretending. At the end of the movie, pretense is over for him. He finds his way out.
Sidney (Amy Adams, also very good, but she still has to work hard for Man of Steel for me) is almost never seen as a real person, she constantly hides behind different roles. Only at the very end we get a glimpse of her real persona and feelings. But if you listen to her, it’s clear that she desperately wants to get there. She dates DiMaso, but never gives himself over to him because she wants “no more fake shit” anymore (“I wanna live. For real.”) When she realizes that he can’t offer that to her, she admits her real feelings for Irving, whom she loves despite his flaws and appearance. They both see through each other and allow each other to see who they really are. This makes them the heroes of the movie, even if they’re con artists for the most time. But they are the only two who eventually value real feelings over pretense, although they are the masters of pretense. Or maybe ‘because’?
DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the most pathetic of the characters because he is willing to give everything up, just be another person. He sacrifices his job because he wants more recognition as a FBI agent and fails. He sacrifices his relationship because he wants to have sex with Sidney, confusing it with love. He sacrifices his life to have the life of a con artist. He constantly ignores people’s feelings, because he so desperately wants be someone else. His life, a “good” life in our society’s evaluation, is meaningless to him and he goes all the way downhill to find something else. As Sidney points out, he even curls his straight hair to be different, to be less “straight.” Look at the scene where he makes fun of Irving for pretending to have a working marriage, while out of focus we see his fiancée and out of frame his mother, who he calls “just people.” Instead of admitting to himself that he’s unhappy, he keeps up appearances and ignores every warning sign that he is on the wrong track, eventually dooming himself.
In the end, Irving says: “You can fool yourself for just so long. And your next reinvention better have your damn feet on the ground.” Pretense loses, truth wins. This is a very good movie.