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Movie Review: American Hustle

For a movie about drug hustle set in the 70s, there is almost no cocaine to be seen. But beneath the perms and leisure suits lies something truly human.

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By Kristen McGuiness

01/06/14

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There is only one singular use of cocaine in the movie American Hustle, and it doesn’t even show up until nearly 90 minutes into the movie’s 138 minutes run time. This is shocking for a number of reasons. One, American Hustle is set firmly in the 1970s, and two—everything about Hustle, from its hubris-driven greed to its hard-riding track shots to its love affair tucked between the rotating belt of a dry cleaner and an enormous amount of sequins and hair spray seems to scream “Cocaine!”

But that’s the brilliant theme of American Hustle, and the decade it strives, a little too forcefully, to depict: sometimes the strongest drugs come from within. Irving Rosenfeld, played with a cold sentimentality by Christian Bale, is not a man who needs drugs. A Long Island conman with realistic goals, Irv just wants to runs his dry cleaner fronts and make his cash on the side. Even when he meets the Bonnie to his Clyde, the con artist prodigy played by a staid Amy Adams, he refuses to give up his stable home life with his unstable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence playing a character twice her age with more talent than most actresses who actually are) and his adopted son. 

Irv might slough off the good clothes that come through his dry cleaners and he might deal in forged art, but he is no coke sniffing good time boy. He is a man with a conscience, one that gets challenged when he is caught by creepy Federal Agent Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, who always looks like a date rapist to me. I feel bad because he seems like an awfully nice guy but seriously, he was born with a rich frat boy face. And this character doesn’t help.

For the next hour, we watch Agent DiMaso parade around his catch like he owns them, forcing them to take down other so-called bad guys in a variety of stings, but quickly Agent DiMaso starts upping the ante. Seeing Irv and Edith as perfect foils to entrap politicians, the Mob, and anyone else who might make him a name, Agent DiMaso tries to use them like bait, forcing them into a dangerous and morally complicated plan to ensnare a well-loved New Jersey mayor through a scheme to rebuild Atlantic City.

According to director O. Russell, the 70s were less about cocaine, and more about hair; disappointing to all of us who have glamorized the decade in which we were born. But with Irv’s disturbing comb-over, which opens the film, to DiMaso’s greasy bathroom perm curls, to Polito’s unnecessary pompadour, apparently Aqua Net was as big as the Medellin cartel. Which is unfortunate, particularly in Jeremy Renner’s case (as that New Jersey mayor), whose acting is so good that you wish you could remove the squirrel from his head to focus more on the man and the performance. Though Bale may be the method actor, it is Renner who brings the soul to his character’s eyes. At every hopeful look, the innocence of his smile, you know what Irv is trying so hard to be; Carmine is a good guy who only wants the best for his people.

Even without the cocaine—or even that much booze, save for Jennifer Lawrence whose pill-fueled Requiem scene set to “Live and Let Die” might just go down as one of the most exhilarating moments in film history—the message is clear that hubris makes men go mad. And by the end, even when Irv has collapsed from guilt and the cries of Carmine’s family echo through the New Jersey he was trying to save, you cannot help but wonder why you paid to watch a flashier, stickier version of everyday life.

Buried under the cinematography, overacting and perm rods is a story of what happens when caricatures become real. The sleazy Long Island con man is really just  a family man, the New Jersey politician genuinely cares for his people, the trophy wife is a broken little girl obsessed with nail polish, and the federal agent who finally gets his comeuppance is a nerdy Mama’s boy who wanted to be the star. It is only this last character who does blow in the movie; the only one who is unable to find himself.

It’s not about watching good men finding out they were good men all along. The real bad guys never even make it into the picture—they’re too busy funding them. And maybe that’s why the drugs were missing. Had everyone been doing cocaine, they never would have been able to figure out who they really were. Because in America, self-realization is the biggest hustle of all. 

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