I expected a lot going into American Hustle. I mean it’s got the cast, the look, the budget, everything you need to make a good movie. You throw in a story revolving around the personal lives of con artists wrapped up in the Abscam scandal back in the late ‘70s, and you’ve got a recipe for cinematic paradise. American Hustle delivers on all that promise, and it does it damn stylishly.
You can’t help but get caught up in a period piece as flawlessly executed as this. The velvet and polyester suits, the ridiculously low necklines and unbuttoned shirts with mile-wide lapels, not to mention all those perms and pompadours, make no mistake, this is the late ‘70s and if it weren’t so damned upfront and endearing it’d verge on the cheesy. But Hustle manages to evade the nostalgic cheese pitfall by giving you a story steeped in the lives of the characters’ that populate it much more than in its period. This is a movie about people and the way they see themselves and their world, about their dreams, hopes, and tragedies, and the myriad ways they deal with the intersections of those things, not about disco and cocaine (although there is a bit of both) and not even really about Abscam when it comes down to it.
Even the Abscam story itself ends up not being about government corruption and bribery. The basics are simple (this may count as spoilers, but I promise nothing here is news or all that pivotal to the movie’s plot): con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) are forced by the FBI (Bradley Cooper and a little of Louis C.K. for good measure) to entrap white collar criminals. They design a plan to convince Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) that an immensely rich Sheikh is interested in investing to help rebuild Atlantic City as a gambling powerhouse. The scam expands and soon all manner of unsavory characters get involved so you can expect the requisite government corruption and mafia connections. What pulls Hustle away from just an Abscam revamp are how those characters all come to life.
Polito isn’t the cunning and detached Nucky Thompson (of Boardwalk Empire fame, another wildly corrupt Atlantic City politicia) and he’s certainly not as slimy as we constantly find our own contemporary politicians are. He’s an idealist, a man who sees his sins of bribery and legislative circumvention as necessary evils to rebuild a state and through that to rebuild lives, always in the name of community and family. Bale and Adams are given backstories that call into question the nature of a con artist and keep us torn between hoping for some ace in the hole play to save them and being shocked at their duplicity and cold-heartedness. But throughout, you never lose the feeling that their duplicity is in the name of something. And it’s that something that gets to the core of this film.
American Hustle is about precisely what its name says: the hustle and the American dream, the art of the con and the potential it holds to transmute miserable broken lives into glamour and wealth. Whether it’s an aspiring politician looking to put Atlantic City back on the map or an FBI agent trying to make his name by taking on the mob and the US government itself or even just a middle aged conman trying to find a little joy in life, the fiction of the con becomes the fiction of the American dream for these characters. It’s how they make their lives into what they want them to be. Sure it all boils down to make-believe, but they’re always quick to remind us the ruling principle of deception: people believe what they want to believe. Why should they be any different?