As American Hustle unfolds leisurely, even lyrically in parts, it soon warms up to its most essential concern: What kind of a relationship are the con artists capable of sharing among them? Because a con artist, by default, has to be sly and dishonest, while for any relationship to thrive you at least need a modicum of honesty. The characters in American Hustle find themselves crunched by these two opposite ideologies, at times veering off, at times staying the course. Initially, the film backs these swindlers, almost telling us that you need to be smart in order to not get trampled by others. Therefore, it’s not surprising that out of the four main leads, the only character who is stranger to wily mechanisation is also unintelligent to the fault (Rosalyn – Jennifer Lawrence), fumbling, bungling through life. But as the film nears its conclusion, we learn that the fate of the characters didn’t depend on who was in control throughout, but who clinched the deal in that moment. The fickleness of their lives is perhaps the most telling.
One of the many reasons David O. Russell makes films that stay with you for a long time because of the way we interact with his characters. Consider Eklund (Christian Bale) in The Fighter, as the film begins we see him as a boxer who frittered his gift away, a life held hostage to poor choices, but it’s only later in the film—when Eklund’s sees the documentary made on his life in prison—that we truly understand how delusional, and off the mark he has been. Similarly, in Silver Linings Playbook, we know at the outset that Tiffany is troubled but we don’t exactly know why, and then later in the film, we see her on the edge—saddled with a sex addiction problem and the possible reason that led to it—and we begin seeing her with a fresh point of view. What’s interesting in both the cases is that the characters haven’t changed; what’s changed, if at all, is us and the way we see them now. It’s a typical Russell hallmark, showing the two facets of the same character and asking us to join the pieces. Conventionally, the characters change in the movies, in Russell’s films, we have to realign ourselves as we come across characters’ hitherto non-existent fragments.
Russell employs that astuteness in American Hustle as well. The opening scene of the film is a fair indicator. As the film begins, we see the three principal characters geared up to go somewhere. Their conversation and the playful altercation hardly reveal anything. And if you would not have read the plot synopsis you would have been led to believe that all three of them are con artists. But we soon understand that one of them, Richie (Bradley Cooper), is an FBI agent. And he’s playing the two—Irving (Bale), Sydney (Adams)—to get what he wants. But Richie hardly lives by the linear morality that’s usually central to the FBI officers. He’s as cunning, manipulative, and prone to bouts of unrestrained anger as Irving. And, later on, we also see him as a frail man, whose personal life is unfulfilled, at best.
What kind of a relationship do the three of them share with each other? At times, when the three of them are present in a potentially perilous situation, they need each other. But at various times, the two pairs—Irving and Sydney; Richie and Syndey—strike an emotional, sexual bond with each other. But we are not sure how much of their relationship is artifice and how much of it is genuine. Their relationships are marked by both constant one-upmanship and a need for emotional solace. This frequently convoluted set up often robs the film of an intimate quality, something easily evident in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. And it’s not a comparison—it cannot be—as the concern and construct of American Hustle is obviously very different from Russell’s previous two films.
But it’s the all round brilliant acting that would leave you confounded at times, which makes American Hustle shine, and makes it rise above its easily apparent genre. It’s almost trite to comment on the performances in a film helmed by a director of Russell’s calibre—you would think it’s a given—and while that’s true, what’s striking about the performances in American Hustle is not just the assured individual acts, but how they help materliaze the relationship between characters. You are constantly at loss to understand who’s playing whom, who are working in pairs, when is it just an act and when are they being themselves? But this constant back and forth volleying doesn’t tire you, instead you want to know more, not only about what’s actually going on, but, more importantly, who wins in the end. And not just monetarily. Because whenever you play a game where the stakes are abnormally high, it doesn’t really matter what you had, but what you are leaving with.