In “American Hustle”’s would-be signature moment con-man Christian Bale shows G-man Bradley Cooper a Rembrandt in a gallery. He explains that it’s really a fake. Who is the better artist, he asks, the original artist or the person who took the time and skill to fake it?
Well, I would say the artist. He is the one who perceived it. He is the one who conceived it. He is the one who summoned the inspiration. He is the one who saw the new possibilities in style. To answer the forger is to define art only as the flesh of the work and not the soul. David O. Russell’s tale explores but confuses the relationship of art and artifice, making the case for the con over the reality. Is that inspired thinking? Is that trolling? Or is that being taken in?
Watching “American Hustle,” Martin Scorsese would be most entitled to scream forgery. With its room-to-room tracking shots, slow fades, slo-mo shots underlined by period music, and placement of Robert DeNiro in a gangster cameo, Russell barely hides his debt to “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” In its exploration of power and ethics, as well as its farcical comedy, it resembles “The Departed.”
Aside from Scorsese, “American Hustle” references other films. It indulges in a “Saturday Night Fever” disco passage and borrows shots from films such as “Pulp Fiction,” which famously itself is an artistic forgery. But I could never quite tell–do these touches make it a study on the similarity of art and the con? Or is it just standard acts of artistic scavenging?
Other than that, “American Hustle” is an engaging caper. A pair of con artists (Bale and Amy Adams) get rich by claiming to have banking connections in England. When a zealous FBI agent (Cooper) pins them, he forces them into a sting operation aimed at bribing politicians on behalf of a phony Arab sheik (the ABSCAM scandal of the early eighties). Whether that plot actually matters is another story. The movie is more about the illusions and power plays among the principals, with an assist from Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s passive-aggressive wife.
“American Hustle” is one of the few Russell films that hasn’t left me shaking my head and looking for the exit. Adams, who often shrinks in big films, finally gets her not-so-virginal revelation, dominating the men and the movie. Plus, I really like Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” track, which has been a great cinematic song. “American Hustle” does for it what “Zodiac” did for Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” While I think it could have been tighter with its thinking, the storytelling makes it rewarding.