The con movie, like its close cousin the heist movie, is a weird animal. As long as you present a protagonist that is somehow charming or likable, you can get people to follow complete scumbags and root for them to pull one over on whoever they are trying to rob or scam. In David O. Russell’s newest film, Christian Bale is the con man that becomes our loosely-defined hero, and his odyssey through an ever-escalating sting is at turns humorous and uncomfortable. To call American Hustle Russell’s Boogie Nights is not accurate and a bit reductive, but not completely out of line, either. They’re both a strange mix of comedy and explosive drama, often in the same scene and they both involve outsiders from the weirdest era in American history.
Since the film is loosely based on actual events, it makes sense that it is set in approximately the same era that the original “Abscam” scandal occurred, aka the 1970s. But there’s more to it than that. I have always seen the 70’s, despite being born in them, to be the decade that America was lost in sleaze and ugliness. And not so much even the good kind of sleaze like corny porn films and grindhouse movies. But more that everything about it seems unpleasant. The clothing and general sense of design and style went against all common sense in the broadest terms of even the most basic rules of taste. Music was by and large awful (thank God for The Ramones coming along as an antidote to disco and arena rock) and sex lost the icky but playful naivete of the 60s free-love hippies and just became kinda icky. And that’s not even getting into the political arena. So it makes sense to set such a sleazy (but goofy) story of crime, sex and political expediency in this period. When your most virtuous character is a bribe-taking politician, you know that things will get worse before they get better.
And when the first shot in your movie (following the nice touch of an era-accurate Columbia logo) is a fat, bald Bale navigating an incredibly complex technical ballet to set up his comb-over, it expertly sets up that the whole film will be about people building huge facades to fool the world, but most importantly themselves.
It’s a film with a very nihilistic point of view; everyone lies to everyone, but they especially do it to themselves. Some people are just better at it than others.
Thankfully, that depressing thought is wrapped in some very broad but very good performances, beginning with Bale playing far against the type that he established with the larger budget fare he’s been in like the Batman films. It’s the kind of physical transformation that we saw from Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, but more startling because it isn’t just some make-up job for a gag. He commits to and embodies the character. Opposite him is Amy Adams as his partner in crime and Bradley Cooper as an FBI agent that conscripts them into his service and slowly seems to lose his mind as he sees more and more opportunity for glory. While I think he’s the wrong choice for the voice of Rocket Raccoon, I’ve liked Cooper ever since his days on Alias. I would say without a doubt that this is some of his best work. The tightrope he walks as he goes around the bend is taut through the film and, despite chewing scenery like a beaver, he never quite falls off. Also, I am convinced that he and Louis C.K. could be a comedy superteam.
You’ve also got Jeremy Renner doing something new as the Conan-haired New Jersey mayor that gets swept along in their schemes. He represents the old ways and the older generation. The family-style backbone of New York from the earlier part of the 20th century. There’s a fantastic juxtaposition in the film using music, swinging from a disco tune accompanying Cooper’s next-gen, drug snorting fed to Renner and Bale singing along to Tom Jones’ mega-hit crooning of Delilah that works to show the difference between the new guard and the small-time folks caught up on the new mechanisms emerging, about to be caught under the wheels of ‘progress.’
That said, the best work in the film may belong to Jennifer Lawrence’s manic housewife that is equal parts self-destructive narcissist and manipulative sociopath that lashes out to hurt everything she cares about.
Set against a set of super-hits from the 70s that K-BILLY would give a stamp of approval, these characters seek to screw each other over at every turn and the point seems to be seeing who truly does end up coming out on top. The finale is suitably satisfying without glamorizing any of these amoral Looney Tunes too much. They take themselves very, very seriously, but thankfully we can laugh at their delusions. And possibly some of our own. If we happen to see them there.
(Four damns given out of five)