You have to hustle to survive.
That’s what Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) lives by and to some extent every other character lives by hustling in some way or another. Maybe it isn’t as out in the open as Irving but they do it, and David O. Russell wants us to look at ourselves and the hustling we do daily to keep ourselves going. Because it isn’t about what you look like or what you do, it is about what you do to survive and how you get out of it.
American Hustle follows Rosenfeld as he works with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) in a con scheme that is bringing them both in a rich return. But not until Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) shows up and puts a FBI badge to their head does the stakes begin to get really high. DiMaso isn’t after little schemes that pay up big, he is looking for the grand prize and wants to do anything to get to the top and become a hero. That prize is Carmine Polito, a New Jersey mayor looking to renovate Atlantic City and bring busy back to the state as well as open up jobs. A noble act, but one that can be manipulated with the help of Rosenfeld and Prosser.
The story progresses pretty well and when the scheme really takes shape, it is a joy to watch. But where the film has problems is when it tries to go big, because much like DiMaso, Russell is aspiring to the great con films or gangster films of Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. He brings us an array of characters carried by expert performances, put them outside their comfort zones, and watches as they respond. The response is great but it seems like he thought that’s all you needed to follow those masters but it lacked one thing, that one stroke that made it a masterpiece.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is good — really good, but when you look at what it is homaging and aspiring to, it just comes up short. I think it was lacking that moment that just put it over the edge. It thought it had that moment near the end when Irving and Sydney flip the game on Richie but that wasn’t spectacular, it didn’t blow your mind, to be quite honest you could see it coming from the build-up of the three character’s relationships. It was missing that knife that left you going, “Wow! Incredible!”
It had its share of moments though. I think the defining moment was when they were at the party with Carmine and the “sheik” and the mobster tell them that the big boss from Miami was there to meet them. In walks a master in his own right, Robert DeNiro as Victor Tellegio, and man does he command the scene. The tension is red hot. Irving, Richie, Carmine, and the sheik are set in stone as they realize that they are on thin ice now. I thought that this could be the moment and quite honestly, keeping DeNiro around and bringing him back more could of set the movie over the bar but after that scene, while good, never amassed to the greatness of that moment, that tension, and the pure terror in the eyes of those men around that table.
But maybe that was the key, maybe Russell was hustling us the entire time and making it out to seem like this overly great movie. Or maybe I’m overthinking the situation. But isn’t that what this film is about? It is a con, it is hustling to make sure that you survive. Irving hustles to make a living and is what he has always done to get through life, even as a child; Sydney hustles because she is good at it and has the intangibles to make people do what she wants; Richie does it to get to the top in life and become that icon he has always dreamed of; Carmine does it for the people, to give them a better life; Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) does it to find love, and to get Irving to care about her the way he does for Sydney.
It is all an act, an act of surviving. That is one thing that the film succeeded at. It succeeded at making you think when you left at what you hustle in life in order to survive. It may seem miniscule but it is still something. Surviving is the key to life with all the other stuff following. American Hustle is about hustling the American Dream and finding your way to that beautiful shore at the end.