In an early scene in American Hustle, Irv the con man (Christian Bale) takes Richie the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to a museum, shows him a Rembrandt, and tells him it’s a fake. People believe what they want to believe, Irv tells Richie. Cause the guy who made this was so good that it’s real to everybody. Now who’s the master — the painter or the forger? He then goes on: That’s the way the world works. Not black and white as you say. Extremely grey. And that’s the territory of this film: that grey place where what’s true and what’s a put on is never clear because there was never any black and white to begin with.
There’s a gag that runs through the film as if to make this all the clearer. Louis CK plays a mid level management FBI agent who begins telling Richie a story about ice fishing as a child. Richie is excitable and keeps interrupting the story to finish it and provide the inevitable moral: I understand what’s happening. Your brother went out on the ice, the ice was too thin…because he was too eager, and you’re saying I’m too eager. But Louis CK keeps countering him — No, that’s not what I’m saying. And, each time, Richie walks away without hearing the end.
American Hustle doesn’t have a clear moral. It doesn’t come to a point. It relishes that blurry, messy, sloshing movement between and amongst truth and lies, sincerity and bullshit, real and forgery. At one point, the Amy Adams character reveals her “real ” name to Richie who is not as angry as he is disoriented. To which she says, You do it. You know, you live with your mom — you have a fiancée you don’t even acknowledge, right? That’s what you do. And you curl your hair in little fucking curlers, which is — No, it’s okay, you look good with it, but you know — you have straight hair, so that’s what you do to survive. You do all sorts of things, you know. We all do.
Survival — humanity — is not based on the real or even on the distinction between the real and the fake. No, it’s all a hustle, a put on, done in the name of life, as life. It doesn’t mean we’re not sincere because there is no absolute sincerity. The whole either/or of real and fake is replaced by a relentless movement, a play, between the two. (Listen to this Ween song and tell me if it’s sincere or not. It’s not one or the other; it’s both at the same time.)
Just as Louis CK’s story never delivers its moral, the moral of American Hustle never comes. Is this a tale of con artists who get so enmeshed in their lie that they just want what’s true? Nope. It’s a tall tale that performs the beautiful, demented, erotics of never giving up your con, playing it all the way through — from the feet up, as Irv says over and over. (I became a con artist, he tells us, from the feet up, for real. For real!)
After all, a true con man doesn’t pretend. He doesn’t wink. It’s all in the veracity of the details. You don’t play an Arab; you actually are an Arab (from one angle, this is a film about acting and movie making). This is what Richie doesn’t understand but wants so badly to. He’s a nice Italian boy who lives with his mother but desperately wants to be the swinging Studio 54 guy — shirt unbuttoned, chains dangling in his chest hair. He wants to learn the American hustle. And so he enlists a couple of cons who make their living in every sense through the put on.
But that doesn’t mean they’re false! Sure, her accent is fake. But they’re both cons from the feet up. They sincerely put on the world. The opening scene is a long take of Irv gluing his hair piece and taking it very seriously. You can tell he’s sincere, honest in his commitment to the con of life. In the voice over, he tells us he’s a mark to his wife who manipulates him. He doesn’t blame her; he doesn’t get angry. Sometimes you’re the mark; sometimes you’re the con. Such is life. It’s all one big con; the trick is to find your angle (pace Miller’s Crossing).
This is a film about, and of, play — play as life, play as pleasure, play as sincerity, play as the con. Play is that movement that never has a need for a foundation, for truth or sincerity of a real self. Play is not only along for the ride; play is the ride. Play is the relentless movement back and forth between real and fake, a game of catch improvised with no winner and no loser.
This isjouissance, the orgasmic play that comes and comes, rising and swelling but never finally shooting its load. For all its sex and sexiness, there is no sex in the movie. We never see it or hear it. Indeed, Amy Adams tells Richie (Cooper), that they’ll fuck when they’re real — which never happens! No one comes! American Hustle enjoys the swell of it all.
This is the sultry erotics of the eternal put on, its sloshing to and fro, its pleasures which carry you along every which way. The film keeps building to these local crescendos, these frenzies that make everything teeter and slosh about. Think of that scene in Goodfellas in which Ray Liotta, wired on blow, is being followed by the helicopter. Well, American Hustle has about a half dozen or so such scenes, these manic, swelling tides of action and affect.
The camera rarely lingers — except in that opening scene with the hair piece. Then, the camera enjoys watching Bale. There is a pleasure here, a pleasure in his belly and hair. It’s not a knowing or mocking pleasure. No, the camera stays with him because it enjoys the view.
Most of the time, that camera is moving, conspicuously swooshing about. This film is the American hustle, ever on the go. Of course, all movies move. Take Harmony Korine’s brilliant Spring Breakers. It moves relentlessly, a delirious film, what Gilles Deleuze might call gaseous, all misty miasma as plot, character, and dialogue move at their own pace and not necessarily with each other.
American Hustle, on the other hand, is liquid. It flows, with the occasional eddy and punctuated by tidal swells. The story at time comes close to incoherence but holds it together like water in a swinging bucket. The sheer movement of it all is its coherence.
What I really like about this movie is its unabashed joy in the put on. It’s not a dark comedy that secretly yearns for a more moral world. No, American Hustle enjoys the play, that slippery grey area. It’s there where it finds the beautiful, sensual frenzy of life — not to mention the erotics of film.