Horizon at Sandy Point

Monday, January 20, 2014

American dreams

American Hustle is supposed to be based on the events of what came to be called the Abscam Sting (1978 to 1980) in which several American politicians were nabbed by the FBI. It was thought to mark a watershed in how corruption was perceived. David O. Russell's 2013 film, however, is less a cautionary tale than a glamorisation of graft.

Hustle is the name of the game. The hustlers are good-looking. Their risk-taking is engaging, with the potential for profit. Everyone becomes a hustler. And in case there are still people who don't know what a hustle is, and who is a hustler, the opening scene might be considered a good enough non-verbal explanation. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is carefully arranging his coif, combing hair over his bald spots. He's a small ageing man with a potbelly and inconsequential manner, but his comb over and aviators bestow the self-image and self-confidence he thinks he needs. He's the kid who grew up hard, breaking store fronts to help his father's glass business. Now he owns a chain of dry cleaners, sells art and negotiates investments on behalf of those who would like to put in $5000 to get $50,000.

Together with the girl Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), they run a scam that features Sydney's British accent and her persona Lady Edith Greensly. Through their fake business, London Associates, they come to the attention of the FBI and the young agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). When they attempt to take his cheque for an investment in London, the G-man in jerry curls busts them, and they land in jail.  But in return for the use of their skills, they can get out. The saying, "set a thief to catch a thief" is personified in Richie.
The hustler as Everyman, the girlfriend, the G-man - Irving, Edith/Sydney and Richie - team up to flush out other hustlers.

The plot to snare "corrupt" or greedy government officials grows to include a fake sheik and demands more and more FBI funds. It reaches a sinister level when it intersects the Atlantic City underworld, personified by the Robert de Niro-played don. Richie - a youngster in his game - is high on his conquest of Edith/Sydney and the impending breakthrough of his elaborate trap.

Meanwhile, Irving is having his own troubles at home. Wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) lives the American dream: sun lamps, beauty treatments, clothes; and a husband who brings home the microwave. Irving would divorce her for Sydney. But Rosalyn says she will never have a divorce; and she threatens that she could take Danny and he would never see the child that he considers his own again. Then she seduces him. In the home, the con is not coin, but sex.

Rosalyn, American wife: "We fight and then we fuck, that's our thing."
American Hustle, where everyone is a hustler might be seen as an indictment on American values. But even in the hustle, there are heroes. And the hero is seen by what's in the heart. Richie catches his corrupt officials and is most likely to move up in the FBI; he's not hero material. Rosalyn takes a lover and lives the life of the kept woman. But it is Irving and Sydney who have earned their freedom and happiness with each other.

In the Middle Ages, morality plays were used to entertain and encourage people to be good according to the norms (religion and laws) of the day. The morality play featured an everyday hero who battled temptation and diabolic forces (personified) and was helped by angels or virtues. Today's morality plays all happen on the screen - tv or cinema - and the narrow path is even harder to discern. But we could always tell the act from the action, the player and the played; good from evil; and know the true value of our deeds.
(All photos from IMDb)

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