When American Hustle opens, Christian Bale’s character is carefully preparing what another character describes as “an elaborate comb-over.” He’s a con artist. He doesn’t want you to know he’s bald. It’s less about ego than we initially think. He doesn’t want you to know anything about him, least of all the truth.
About two minutes in we know a lot about him and his relationship with Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper. Two minutes, I tell you. That’s some serious storytelling there. We see Bale attempting to con a mayor, played by Jeremy Renner, into taking a briefcase of money. That will make sense later when we discover Cooper is using con artists to entrap corrupt politicians. The deal, however, appears to go south and the movie jumps back to Bale’s youth before we see how or if he can fix it. His father owned a glass company and, as a boy, Bale’s character took it upon himself to throw bricks through shop windows for business.
That’s loyalty, man. And it figures prominently in the plot.
Around the time he meets Amy Adams for the first time he’s running a few dry cleaning shops. One of their first dates—get this—is taking her to try on some of the wardrobe customers never came to pick up. It sounds exactly what the kind of guy who sports a silly comb-over would do, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t just as sweet and romantic as it is funny. What we have here is a movie that defies almost every convention in the book. The more movies you’ve seen, the more you’ll appreciate this one.
I guess you could describe it as a Scorsese mafia movie without the violence (and one actor’s cameo indicates it’s aware of this), but that description would be doing the movie a disservice. You really haven’t seen anything like this before. The reason the characters make such a big stink over Duke Ellington is because that’s how the movie’s plot unfolds: like jazz, baby.
Not only will this movie win Best Picture, it actually deserves to win. I can’t tell you the last time the movie that should have won actually won, but for the first time in my lifetime, I can’t imagine the Academy, as stupidly politic as it is, giving the big statue to anything else. Then again, I thought Pulp Fiction and Fargo were sure bets, too, and I never thought I’d live to see a movie win Best Picture but not Director, so that just goes to show my track record on Oscar predictions. I digress.
The trailers for movies like American Hustle tend to spoil the fun. This one doesn’t. Fittingly, the trailer is a con itself: it kind of gives you an idea of what to expect, but it’s far more entertaining than it lets on. I don’t want to give anything away either because it gets funnier and more outrageous the deeper the characters dig their hole. Louis C.K. is much more than adequately cast as Cooper’s boss. He provides a running gag that involves a possibly pointless story about ice fishing. Jennifer Lawrence is surprisingly funny as a house wife who refuses to listen to her husband when he tells her not to put metal in the microwave oven, or as these characters call it: “the science oven.” Because, and remember this is 1978, microwave ovens cook the food with, “I don’t know, science or something. It’s scientific.”
Yes, what these characters do is wrong and immoral, but they’re not bad people. Not by a long shot. That’s another thing that sets American Hustle apart from so many of the con movies we love and the formula we’re familiar with: we’re not rooting for the bad guy who happens to be better than the badder guy. They’re all good guys, even the ones who grease their pockets with the tax payers’ money, even the ones who cheat on their spouses. And yes, they’re all movie stars, but goddamn it’s so refreshing how little they resemble movie stars. They’re real people and we like them and that just makes the whole movie pop in a colorful, beautiful way. Offbeat doesn’t even begin to describe it.
This isn’t a heist film. It’s not about the con itself. In a nutshell, it’s not about people making a bad decision, but people who have already made the bad decision and have to deal with the consequences. It’s the story that, in most crime movies, takes place after the end credits.
I don’t know. I watch a lot of movies, almost obsessively. There’s a lot of crap, a lot of hours I wish I could get back. American Hustle makes it all worth it. It’s the movie serious moviegoers are constantly searching for. As is such, it probably won’t impress people who don’t appreciate the more subtle aspects of movies. But those in the know are in for something truly special.