Good Times, Sad Times – American Hustle

American Hustle – 2013 – dir. David O. Russell

★★★.5/★★★★

David O. Russell has achieved a status in my mind as the other side of a coin occupied by Wes Anderson. They are both directors that make quirky idiosyncratic films and they both have avid fan bases. Anderson is the style, his films have yet to gain much traction with awards (outside of animation and screenplay) but it is abundantly clear from the camera work and shot composition that you are watching a Wes Anderson film. Russell on the other side is the star power with a place in the mainstream, each of his films is identifiably different particularly in how they bend the genres they inhabit. For Russell, the actors and the message mean more than the style and this has resulted in two nominations for best director, three wins and another four nominations for the actors in his films. One thing this awards season is for sure, that number will be increased to double digits because of American Hustle.

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The Abscam scandal was an FBI entrapment of a number of eastern politicians in the late 1970s on bribery and corruption charges. However, the film isn’t really about that. In fact, considering all the recent charges of corruption in Canadian municipal politics, this film is more of a cautionary tale and character study of what happens when you force good people into bad situations and bad people into roles of power. There are five main players in the film, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams), her boyfriend FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and their target Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). DiMaso catches Irving and Sydney doing their con act and he offers them a chance to mitigate their sentences by helping him catch other fraudsters. It’s obvious that the intent of the operation is to catch people in power abusing their positions and influence, but the intent of the people is pure self-preservation and self-advancement.

This is the greatest strength of the film. There is an excellent moment where Jeremy Renner has just heard from Bale that their whole friendship has been a part of the FBI investigation and he asks Bale if anything he had done was for his own benefit. Bale knows that and realizes that he had let his personal desperation and Cooper’s ambition put good people in bad situations. While in real life the accused politicians did some worse, in the film these people were acting for the good of their communities and took bribes as a part of the process rather than for personal gain. Bale points this out to Cooper at the end saying that he hadn’t even come close to the big fishes he was after.

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The reason this is so poignant for me is that it reminds me of Senator Mike Duffy and former MP Bev Oda here in Canada. He has been lambasted for getting caught misfiling residency claims and she was (among other things) found to have over spent while on international trips, most famously on a 12$ glass of orange juice, all on the tax payers dime. People claimed these as abuses of tax payer money and made them out to be evil people. I couldn’t think of them as such because they were simply the first to be caught doing what politicians had been doing for decades. The same applied to the film. These politicians commonly dealt with the mob because they were more community organizers than anything. When dealing with the mob they did unsavory things to do good for their constituents. That Is the question this film forces us to ask ourselves: we want transparency, but do we blame people for doing things the way they have always been? American Hustle is a sad film with laughs, not a funny film with drama. Its nomination at the Golden Globes for Best Musical or Comedy Film is pure category fraud.

Back to the film and what works more tenuously. The five main actors all deserve acting nominations for their roles. Jeremy Renner is the best of them, showing that he can do more than act stoic and somber. Renner is the good man thrown into a bad situation and he plays him with a believable integrity and caring. The other four are excellent, but in this year so far, only Renner is in territory to deserve a win (although there’s no way he’ll win over Jared Leto). What’s odd is that those performances are also the worst thing about the film; they bring the moral tale and the character study to life but they definitely run a tight wire act of believability. I can see how some will hate the movie because of it and if it weren’t for the sheer emotional content I might have been on that side of the fence as well.

While it’s a far cry from the gems of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook it’s still a good ride, and definitely worth a watch. If you were a fan of Boogie Nights or Goodfellas you will likely love this film because it is from the same vein. It may not be perfect, but what it says about our times is something not said often enough. 

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