Intent, integrity get put on trial in ‘American Hustle’

“American Hustle” (2013). Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm, Paul Herman, Danny Corbo, Sonny Corbo, Robert DeNiro (uncredited). Director: David O. Russell. Screenplay: Eric Singer and David O. Russell. Web site. Trailer.

Getting what we want out of life often takes considerable moxie. But all the chutzpah in the world won’t matter a damn if it’s not properly backed up with traits like personal integrity and sound intent. That can be a difficult lesson to learn, too, as a coterie of colorful characters finds out all too well in the new, fact-based, period piece comedy, “American Hustle.”

The plot of “American Hustle” is rather complicated, and revealing it in detail would give away too much of the story. In a nutshell, however, the picture is loosely based on the 1978 covert FBI operation known as Abscam, which sought to expose corruption among political power brokers, including members of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator, with the aid of professional con artists.

In this fictionalized account, the film follows the exploits of con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner-in-crime/sometimes-lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Together they routinely and convincingly scam desperate borrowers in search of hard-to-find cash. Their racket is quite successful, too, until they cross paths with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who nabs the duo in an undercover sting. DiMaso makes them an interesting offer, however; he’s willing to trade jail time for their assistance as consultants on a high-profile white collar crime operation he’s planning. Irving and Sydney agree to the overzealous, opportunistic agent’s offer, but, as things get under way, none of them can possibly envision what awaits them – especially when the stakes spiral wildly out of control.

What ensues is an elaborate con game in which everyone hustles everyone else, both in “business” matters and in romantic dealings. This applies not only to the scheme’s three principals but also to virtually everyone else connected with it. This tawdry cast of supporting characters includes Irving’s brassy, loud-mouthed, neurotic wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence); the well-meaning and well-connected but woefully naïve mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner); DiMaso’s mild-mannered but overly officious boss, Stoddard Thorson (Louis C.K.); a politically ambitious federal prosecutor, Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola); a Latino FBI agent, Paco Hernandez, who feebly poses as a phony Middle Eastern sheikh (Michael Peña); a pair of mob-connected casino operators (Robert DeNiro, Jack Huston) and their crooked attorney (Paul Herman); and an array of Congressmen eager to grant political favors in exchange for generous “campaign contributions.” And, as events unfold and plans go wildly astray, the results give new meaning to concept of “the best laid plans of mice and men.”

The conscious creation experiences of this film’s characters shine a very bright light on the notion of intent and what underlies our manifestation efforts. The beliefs we employ in materializing our existence get reflected back to us with sparkling clarity, even if we’re not always clear about what those beliefs inherently involve. So, if we willfully engage in intentional acts of deception, as Irving, Sydney and, ultimately, Richie do, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the results we realize are in line with that thinking, the outcomes often containing elements where the deceivers themselves wind up deceived. The aftermath of that can make for some rather bitter medicine to swallow.

These circumstances thus lend considerable credence to the importance of integrity in our creative efforts, particularly when it comes to striving for the results we desire. If we fudge the essence of our beliefs, for example, we’ll attain outcomes commensurate with such obfuscation, for better or worse. And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, this really shouldn’t come as any surprise, either, yet it’s amazing how often we’re shocked when we get precisely what we put forth. Nevertheless, as consciousness pioneer Jane Roberts often wrote, we get what we concentrate upon. That’s frequently a painful lesson for the film’s protagonists, but it’s especially devastating for Carmine, who periodically engages in willful wrongdoings, even when he knows better, because he assumes such acts are just part of how things get done. He justifies his conduct by holding fast to the belief that it’s sincerely intended to serve an allegedly higher purpose, but these actions still raise all sorts of thorny questions about the ends justifying the means.

By contrast, the one character in the film who’s unabashedly truthful to herself is Rosalyn. She knows what she wants and doesn’t hesitate to make her wishes known, no matter how embarrassing, inconvenient or undermining the expression of her intents may be to others. She knows she’s in touch with this notion, too, even going so far as to brag about having read a book on the subject written by Wayne Dyer (a fan I’m sure he never knew he had!). And, in Rosalyn’s efforts to operate from her own sense of integrity, she keeps everyone else honest, whether they want to be or not.

It’s ironic that these issues come up so pointedly for these characters, especially since, on some level, most of them are legitimately seeking to reinvent themselves. However, the act of genuine reinvention requires sincerity and truthfulness, personal qualities these players seriously lack. With little or no experience in this area, their attempts at making such changes ultimately represent major life lessons for them. And, in that regard, one probably can’t fault them for any of their efforts that go awry since such foibles are an intrinsic part of their learning curves. For their sake, though, one can only hope that they learn from their missteps and make real forward progress.

All of the foregoing considerations make clear just how important it is for us to get in touch with the tools available to us to aid in our personal evolution, particularly our intuition. Not only does it help guide us in our own belief formation and manifestation efforts, but it can also provide a valuable hedge against potentially disastrous pitfalls. I’m sure all of the victims of Irving’s scams wish they would have tapped into it before they got taken to the cleaners. But, then again, I’m sure Irving wishes he’d drawn upon it, too, before his plans, fittingly enough, came back to bite his own posterior. (Would-be scammers take note.)

In my view, “American Hustle” is easily the best picture I’ve seen so far this year. Not only does it make its metaphysical points well, but it’s also an expertly crafted film in virtually every regard. The ensemble of performers is one of the best assembled casts I’ve seen in years, and everybody is terrific in their respective roles (it’s hard to single out anyone in particular, but Bale and Lawrence are especially noteworthy). These stellar portrayals are made possible by the superb writing and the excellent direction of filmmaker David O. Russell, who has arguably turned out his best work in this picture. But, as remarkable as these attributes are, the movie positively nails its take on the ʼ70s in everything from its evocative soundtrack to its tacky clothes and, especially, its hideous hairstyles. The result is a campy, kitschy, nostalgic romp that provides as many laughs through its visuals and its attitude as it does through its many hilarious one-liners. Indeed, as Irving routinely explains to his initiates, “success is in the details,” and that principle is aptly reflected in the filmmaking on display here.

This picture deserves every bit of praise that it earns, and that’s apparent in the many accolades that have already been generously heaped upon it. The film has captured 7 Golden Globe Award nominations, 2 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and a whopping 13 Critics Choice Award nominations, many of which involve honors for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best acting ensemble, and individual acting nominations for all of the principals, particularly Bale and Lawrence. But, considering the quality involved, it’s easy to see why.

Qualities like integrity and truthfulness are often the first casualties in manifestation efforts governed by self-serving expediency, even when veiled in fabricated attitudes that seemingly espouse the contrary. However, if we’re ever to attain what we truly say we desire, those absent traits must be put into place. Failing on this front can carry grave consequences, as the Abscam offenders painfully found out for themselves. And so, to that end, then, as anyone who grew up in the disco era of the ʼ70s well knows, “hustling” is something best left for the dance floor, not the dance of life.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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