Saturday, April 11, 2015

American Hustle

I was in my second year of high school in the late ‘70s when seven Congressmen (six Representatives and one Senator) were getting “stung” in the ABSCAM operation. I hardly paid attention. It’s like that, I guess, when you are a teenager. I was more concerned with whether this one particular girl I had a huge crush on would accept my invitation to the Prom, frankly, and my indignation was mostly centered not on official corruption, but on why I was not getting a chance to start on the basketball team, and also about how so many of my peers had succumbed to the tawdry allure of disco.

So the movie American Hustle (David Russell, 2013) was fun, nostalgic, and an eye opener for me in many ways. It was like a garishly colored newsreel documentary of the decade, and a funny, but still keenly acute, contemplation of the dark side of the American Dream. I had forgotten about all the good music the decade produced (excluding disco) and how bad the clothes and hairstyles were. And I hadn’t thought, all those years ago, about how the ‘70s were the end of the big economic boom produced by our victory in WWII. Yes, the ‘70s: A time of cynicism, inflation, hard times, the end of the ideal of peace, love, truth and beauty. The hippies and yippies still existed, but their dreams of utopia had been co-opted by the youth of the era as an excuse to get high and get laid, and the hell with social justice (what’s that? I imagine my callow self saying to anyone asking me that question at that time).

Times were hard, but I didn’t pay for anything but tickets to the movies, beer, the occasional Stephen King novel, and albums (Supertramp, Springsteen, The Eagles, et al), so I didn’t much care. But there were people who did care, cared very much, about the bottom line, about success, about having a lot of zeros at the end of their bank balances. And, like always, there were people willing to acquire those zeroes through means that were anything but cricket.

It seems to me that the American Dream is about, among other things, re-inventing yourself, and about living in a meritocracy where your talent and hard work will be rewarded. This reinvention in the classical model did not have to do with being a grifter, a flim-flam man or woman, but with throwing off your past, your mistakes, and getting a fresh start. Go west, young man, west from Europe, a less upwardly mobile place, to America, and then move west again across this brave new country. To some this was about new opportunities, but to others it was about selling snake oil. No luck stealing horses back in the old country? Move to New York and sell pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge. In danger of getting your legs broken from doing that? Move west and become a phony doctor or preacher or spiritualist, and just hope you hit it big before you reach the Pacific, and find yourself with your back to the ocean, faced with everyone who has been chasing you since your corrupt journey began.

To be a confidence man you have to have confidence. It is what gives others confidence in you, and what allows you to go ahead and make believe you are something you are not, not stopping to worry about getting run out of town on a rail, thrown in the slammer, or being fitted for a pair of cement overshoes. Confident is what Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is, and reinvention is what he is all about. The child of a failed Bronx businessman, he carries the scars from witnessing that failure into an adult life as con artist (or at least that is his excuse for what he does, and maybe he even believes it, after having told the story so many times). You get the impression all the fraud is more about identity than it is about real physical poverty, though. Even after his scams allow him to acquire some legitimate dry cleaning emporiums he is still always looking out for the main chance, the big score, the brass ring, the ultimate rip-off.

The opening of the movie establishes the vast distance between what he seems to be and what he is brilliantly, showing a pallid and overweight Rosenfeld doing a very meticulous combination comb-over and rug installation for his balding pate. He is going to try to entrap the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner with an hysterical kind of mobbed up pompadour that belonged back in the ‘50s when he wore it in the ‘70s), into accepting a bribe from an Arab sheikh (an FBI agent with a Mexican background who knows no Arabic), as Polito peddles his political influence concerning the coming of gambling to Atlantic City to the ersatz King. Renner does a great job, convincing us that Polito is truly and utterly convinced that since some of his constituents will benefit from all this he is not a crook, but some kind of benefactor. It reminds one of the old saw about the guy from Tammany Hall who lectured about clean graft and dirty graft.

Then we flash back, and learn that Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a hardscrabble kid from Albuquerque who has reinvented herself as an Englishwoman named Lady Greensly, have been nailed for fraud by Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent and ostensible good guy who cons himself into thinking he is saving America from the jackals, but who in his darker moments ruthlessly climbs up the ladder at work (the FBI) while paying no attention to those he hurts, or scams, on the way up. Part of the fun of the movie is the way appearance and reality coalesce. Prosser tells both Rosenfeld and DiMaso that she is playing the other of the two, and you don’t know who she is really allied with, if it is either of them. One of the more poignant parts of the movie concerns the “love” the two con artists may feel for one another—both Rosenfeld and Prosser know anything can be faked, and yet both still want to believe in each other, in love. In the “real thing.” Whatever that is.

DiMaso tries to con them into thinking he will let them go after they help him catch some bigger fish. And as they go trolling, they begin to catch bigger and bigger ones. The mayor of Camden NJ is a small fry compared to some of these, and certainly to the creatures still lurking in the depths. And some of those monsters down there promise not to come docilely into the boat. Richie knows this, and warns DiMaso that soon they will be playing with people who play for keeps, but DiMaso, blinded by ambition (and who puts his hair in curlers, in hilarious counterpoint to Rosenfeld’s rug and comb-over routine), is hearing none of it.

The movie, which turns at some point into a pretty benign shaggy dog story (I never really thought anyone was going to get whacked, and they don’t) about who can pull off the biggest con, has great acting. It must be hard to act like someone who is acting, but Cooper and Bale and Adams pull it off. Each one tells him or herself that what he or she is doing is really for someone else. And of course, they are full of shit. But like a good televangelist, they manage to delude themselves as well as those they are duping. And when Rosenfeld tells DiMaso that everything is grey, not black and white, you realize, uncomfortably, that most of the time that is right. Everyone is selling something, and the best way to get something for nothing is to take advantage of someone who thinks they are getting something for nothing. And this kind of deception is not the sole province of criminals. Even if we are not breaking the law, we constantly, even if we don’t realize it, adjust our image to reflect back to people what we think they need to see in us, to have them see in us what will allow us to get what we want from them. And the late 70’s were nothing if not superficial and glitzy, all about appearances. Studio 54. The Bee Gees (thank God for the divine counterbalance the Ramones and the Sex Pistols provided). The coming of Ronald Reagan, movie star, to the White House. Style over substance.

So, is life really all about who you are inside, or what you look like on the outside? Take a look at who goes to jail and who gets off in this movie. There may be some answers to that question found there.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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