Now that it’s secured several major Screen Actors Guild nominations and is leading the pack in Golden Globes nods, it seems safe to pronounce American Hustle the buzziest movie of the upcoming Oscar season.
Like Martin Scorsese at his best, writer/director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) manages to make corruption and violence look like a lot of fun. The only difference is, in Scorsese’s work, the party eventually comes to an end. That never happens for con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams), or his volatile wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who swindle, seduce, and swear their way (the movie highly deserves its R rating for those last two) into get-out-of-jail-free cards and cozy relationships with the mob.
American Hustle is a loose retelling of the FBI’s ABSCAM sting that took down several politicians, including a U.S. senator, in the late 1970s. (An opening title cheekily asserts “some of this stuff really happened.”) The movie flirts with the question of whether the government’s tactics are as unethical as the people targeted, but it never really delves into that theme. Instead, it busies itself with a rollicking soundtrack, sexy costumes, and increasingly implausible romantic encounters between the film’s principals.
For Russell, though there are consequences for con men and mafiosos, they seem like a reasonable price to pay for a season of high living. The audience never sees the suicide committed by his boisterous, entertaining wife.
From sweeping morality tales like Goodfellas and The Godfather to over-the-top cheese-fests like Scarface, those life-of-crime movies that have staying power in the imagination are always grounded on two unassailable truths: Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished, and the violence of the wicked shall bear them away. Because American Hustle sacrifices this reality to keep the good time rolling, my guess is that while it may be celebrated at the 2014 Academy Awards for some truly superb acting, any impression it makes will shortly fade away.