Reviews in the Nick of Time: American Hustle

by wjw on December 31, 2013

Just check out the star power in American Hustle:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Brad Cooper, and an uncredited Robert de Niro.  Holy cripes!

And let’s just say that it wasn’t a second-rate script that attracted all these megawatt actors.  It was the chance to fucking act!  And act their asses off!

And the parts were so good, and so juicy, that the actors didn’t mind if they ended up looking ridiculous.  I mean, this movie is set on Bad Hair Planet.  And the men all come with pinkie rings, because this is 1980 we’re talking about, and they’re all from Jersey or the parts of New York that most resemble Jersey.

Christian Bale has particularly hideous hair in this one, having been equipped with the World’s Most Unconvincing Comb-Over, and a hairpiece that tends to come loose in moments of crisis. I knew Bale was a good actor, but he always plays such anguished characters filled with angst and inner turmoil that I didn’t know he could do comedy.

But yes, he can.

Amy Adams was clearly enjoying her chance to throw off her Disney-clean image and play a really, really, really bad girl, and she has a terrific time with it.  And Jennifer Lawrence gets the chance to play a woman older than herself, with outrageously big hair, and plays the biggest scenes in the movie, and steals all of them.

As for the plot, it’s based on the Abscam sting, in which the FBI hired a convicted con man to hustle corrupt politicians into jail, resulting in the convictions of one U.S. Senator, six congressmen, and the Mayor of Camden, N.J.  (Congress has since changed the law, making it nigh-impossible for the FBI to investigate corrupt congressmen, unless of course they find $90,000 in cash hidden in the freezer.)

But because the Abscam investigation produced terrific headlines, but was not in itself particularly dramatic— not unless you consider drama to consist of many long, lingering shots of FBI agents staring at television screens— so screenwriter David Singer and Eric O. Russell felt free to invent events and a bunch of people that weren’t there in reality, and to pose various ethical questions and dilemmas which none of Abscam’s real actors ever considered.

The action starts with Christian Bale gluing on his unconvincing hair, and then both the action and the hair get bigger and bigger.  By the end it’s so over-the-top that that the outrageous hairpiece becomes a minor character issue, like maybe a distinctive tie tack.

Great actors, great acting, great script, fine direction.  All available thumbs are up.

The film points out how truly awful the Seventies were.  Stagflation, unemployment, a Mafia tax on all New York businesses, WIN buttons, Watergate, Vietnam, disco, big hair on both sexes.  The massive ingestion of drugs going on at the time was just self-medication for people pushed beyond the limits of sanity.

Contrary to the prejudices of a lot of people, it’s better now.  Really.

And though politics is still a dirty business, we don’t see congressman grabbing suitcases of money.  Anyone holding out a suitcase of money would be viewed as a quaint old-timer and laughed out of the room.

(Why?  A suitcase can’t hold enough money to bribe a congressman these days, and isn’t necessary when anonymous donations [from the Koch brothers] via a private darknet can come flooding in.  And that’s an improvement.  It keeps the low-life scum out of national politics, which is now the playground of high-living billionaire scum.)

As for the history, anyone who wants to investigate the difference between the movie’s reality and the genuine Abscam is invited to check out this article in the Daily Beast.

One difference is that the movie makes some of the real-life sociopaths into sympathetic characters, but that’s so we’ll actually watch them, instead of puking and walking away in disgust.

Which brings up the question: why does so much of our entertainment feature con artists?

Con artists are the lowest of the low, right up there with pimps and other human traffickers.  They rob widows and orphans, they leave their victims devastated and hopeless, and they manipulate other people by abusing trust and confidences.

A hit man will only kill you.  A con artist will take your money, steal the bread from the mouths of your children, take your hope and self-respect, leave you bankrupt, and make you love him.

Prosecutors have a hard time finding people to testify against con artists, because even their victims like them so much that they won’t go to court.

But yet . . . White Collar, Leverage, Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Sting.  We enjoy watching these people do what they do.

Of course, con artists are charming in ways that other criminals are not.  (If a con artist weren’t charming, he wouldn’t be much of a con artist.)  And confidence rackets are non-violent.  Nobody’s ever been killed in a 419 scam.  (Though people used to be, in the days when the victims of Nigerian scammers had to deliver the money in cash and in person, rather than by bank transfer.)

And in our entertainment, the con artists are of course “reformed.”   We are assured that they only steal the money and self-esteem of bad guys.  In White Collar the con artist and forger works for the FBI, just like the far less handsome and charismatic Mel Weinberg did during the Abscam investigation.

Do sociopaths reform?  Or do they just take the FBI’s rather generous salary, immunity, and then go on to destroy more gullible people?

Are they less despicable if they wear a hairpiece?  Or if they’re played by a Hollywood star in a breakout role?


TJIC December 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm

> isn’t necessary when anonymous donations [from the Koch brothers]

Oh, PLEASE. Both sides are equally corrupt, and the Democrats have their own darknets. Koch? Soros. Cato? Brookings.

I know you prefer Team Pepsi over Team Coke, but the two have nigh indistinguishable playbooks.

TJIC December 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm

…that said, this was a great review, and I’ll see the movie based on it. Thanks.

Erich Schneider December 31, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Con artists are modern avatars of the Trickster archetype. We are charmed by them in certain cases just like stories about clever Coyote are charming, sometimes. (Your own fictional Barkazi have a con man at the center of their religion!)

wjw December 31, 2013 at 9:24 pm

TJ>> It was the Koch brothers’ darknet that seems to have been set up for the express purpose of violating the law (such as it is), rather than exploiting its lacunae. So they get my I Will Break the Law and Corrupt All Officials In Order to Achieve My Utopia of Continuous Mineral Extraction Award.

wjw December 31, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Also, please note that I also directed scorn at William J Jefferson, a member in good standing of Team Pepsi, along with the contents of his freezer.

Anonymous January 2, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Let’s face it, good guys are boring, even the dark conflicted ones. Bad guys can have as much fun as they want and don’t have to apologize for it.

Other examples: The Beggar’s Opera, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, William Jefferson Clinton…

Jim Janney January 2, 2014 at 5:12 pm

face it, good guys are boring, even the dark conflicted ones. Bad guys can have as much fun as they want and don’t have to apologize for it.

Other examples: The Beggar’s Opera, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, William Jefferson Clinton…

DensityDuck January 2, 2014 at 9:49 pm

“I called out a Democrat too!” is a common refrain on the Internet these days, and it’s sounding more and more like “some of my best friends are black!” only from the opposite direction.

“why does so much of our entertainment feature con artists?”

Because most of us could not be John Matrix and we know it. But most of us believe that, if we wanted to, we could be Danny Ocean. We couldn’t, but it’s a lot easier to imagine that we could orchestrate a heist than lift a whole tree with one hand.

And besides, the Western world has loved the trickster gods for a long time. Odysseus was not the hero of The Iliad.

MikejustMike January 14, 2014 at 12:36 am

Best line: “Don’t use metal in the Science Box.”

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