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Survival Skills


Review by Leonard Freeman

There is corruption and evil, and then there is what people will do to survive when their lives are a mess and all the options are poisonous. The main characters in American Hustle are not saints, but they could be first cousins of Abraham and Sarah, or Rahab, who practiced their own deceptions to survive in a troubled and troubling world.

American Hustle
Directed by David O. Russell
Columbia Pictures

American Hustle has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and acting nominations for four of its five main leads: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper. The acting is terrific, the story grabs you with nary a moment’s letdown, and all the technical bits (editing, script, costumes, period connection, and music) are spot-on. And belief, faith, politics, patriotism, and survival are all addressed without sounding like a “message” movie.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) has been a con man most of his life. When your options are limited, he opines early on, you learn to survive. As a child Irving helps his father’s glass business and family survive extortion from mobsters by taking it upon himself to break other stores’ windows to create business for dad. Now a grown, overweight Bronx boy with a bad combover hairpiece, he still breaks a window or two on behalf of the glass store, which he now owns, but his real gift is in scamming other lowlifes in need. “Everybody at the bottom crosses paths in a pool of desperation,” Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) tells him, “and you’re there waiting for them.”

Sydney, a down-and-outer who has done what she can from her own “limited options,” is the one with whom Irving actually has fallen in love. After all the years of scamming to survive, he believes he has met someone he can be “real” with. “I could finally be myself,” he says, “without embarrassment, without shame.”

The two enter into business together, she becoming Lady Edith Greensleeves with supposed London banking connections, so that they can con crooked bad-credit business owners into paying them a fee to pursue financing they will never deliver.

Enter FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who entraps and then turns them to follow his own big scheme to snare crooked, corrupt politicians.

“Some of this really happened,” says an on-screen opening, and it did during the late 1970s Abscam scandal. A classic FBI sting caught politicians taking cash on-camera from a supposed Arab sheik to grease the wheels of political favors for Atlantic City casinos. American Hustle’s version turns the angle to have fictional Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) trapped by the sting as well. He’s a good guy whose main interest is in casinos creating new jobs for Camden, but the overreaching DiMaso forces Irving to entrap him. DiMaso’s ego then gets sucked in until the deeper and deeper schemes he pushes them into look to bring insoluble disaster all around.

Complicating all this is Irving’s actual wife, the flaky Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). True to form, Irving started out conning Sydney as well, until their relationship grew into something more. Wheels within wheels, spinning all the way.

To say more would ruin a very good film centered on our human need to believe. “We’re all conning ourselves to get through life,” Irving says. “We leave out the risk and the ugly truths.”

This need enables Irving and his cohort to do what they do. And it pushes these characters, and the audience, to be real: to move past the cons and shucks of life to honesty “without shame or embarrassment,” even if with regret. As Irving tells us, “The art of survival is a story that never ends.” There is something of gospel grace here.

The Rev. Leonard Freeman writes at the weblog poemsperday.com.


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