David O. Russell out-Scorseses Martin Scorsese with "American Hustle," a '70s crime romp that's ridiculously entertaining in all the best ways. "American Hustle" is actually a more thrilling and satisfying experience than Scorsese's latest, the upcoming "The Wolf of Wall Street," which similarly was inspired by the true story of an irrepressible financial huckster. The unreliable narration and urgent zooms, the 1970s milieu of flashily dressed scammers and mobsters, the carefully chosen pop songs underscoring key emotional moments: all those recognizably Scorcesean signatures are there, yet Russell infuses them with his unique brand of insanity.
This director has always has shown a fondness for characters who are on the brink of imploding or exploding, and with "American Hustle" he's assembled his own posse of stars from his last two films to serve as his personal acting troupe: Christian Bale and Amy Adams from 2011's "The Fighter" and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from "Silver Linings Playbook." But he's so skilled with these actors (despite reports of his exhausting methods of motivation on set), he not only finds a side to them we haven't seen in his previous films, he finds a side we haven't seen, period.
Co-written with Eric Singer, Russell's latest is based on the Abscam sting operation of the late '70s and early '80s, in which a con artist helped the FBI catch members of Congress taking bribes. "Some of this actually happened," a title card playfully informs us at the film's start, before Russell introduces us to the glorious sight of Bale's paunchy Irving Rosenfeld plastering a horrendous hairpiece onto his shiny dome. To play the swaggering Rosenfeld, the owner of a small chain of Long Island dry cleaners who makes his real money through fake art and fraudulent personal loans, Bale seemingly downed all that food he denied himself while shooting "The Machinist" and "Rescue Dawn."
He meets his match at a pool party in Adams' Sydney Prosser, a scrappy young woman from Albuquerque with dreams of reinventing herself in high style. It's Sydney's idea to don a fake accent and take on the alter ego of the posh Lady Edith, a Londoner with elite banking connections—and in doing so, she kicks Rosenfeld's cons into high gear. (While all the choices from costume designer Michael Wilkinson are spot-on in their tacky period allure, Adams' ensembles are to-die-for: a plunging and sparkling array of sexy little numbers that help the actress assert her untapped va-va-voominess.)
Irving and Sydney quickly become partners in crime and love—but wait. Irving has a young son, and a wife: Lawrence's needy, vulnerable and spectacularly passive-aggressive Rosalyn (Lawrence). With her fake tan, high hair and vicious nails, Rosalyn is a force of nature. She knows just enough to be dangerous, which may make her an even bigger threat to Irving and Sydney than the federal authorities who are closing in on their operation. Her complexity and unpredictability make her fascinating to watch—she's just unhinged enough to think she's the voice of reason—and Lawrence is a radiant scene-stealer. Regardless of genre, it seems there's nothing this actress can't do.
Cooper's Richie DiMaso is a hotheaded (and tightly permed) FBI agent who's eager to make a name for himself with a big bust. (Seriously, the hair is awful, almost as bad as Bale's; Russell even goes so far as to show Cooper wearing the itty-bitty curlers at the kitchen table. It's kind of adorable.) Richie exposes the lovers' scheme and forces them to help him net even bigger fish to get themselves out of trouble. But he also finds himself falling for the sexy Sydney—er, Lady Edith—and she may feel the same way. Or does she? Part of the fun of "American Hustle" is that it keeps us constantly on our toes wondering who's scamming whom.
Russell doesn't judge any of these people for their idiocy or their aspirations. He revels in their quirks and foibles. The fact that Rosalyn is constantly on the verge of burning the house down, for example, ends up being endearing in Russell's hands. (Microwave ovens aren't for everyone.) We even end up feeling sympathy for Jeremy Renner as crooked Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito. He's a criminal, too: He's on the take and coaxes more powerful politicians to join him, all in the name of rejuvenating Atlantic City. Yet Renner makes us feel this gregarious family man's generosity, and the bromance that forms between him and Bale's character is actually sweet.
Russell's film is big and big-hearted and more than a little messy, but that's apropos given the over-the-top characters, their insatiable greed and their brazen schemes. Sure, it looks like the cast went nuts at a Goodwill store and splurged on the grooviest duds they could find for an elaborate game of dress-up, but the clothes more than just a kitschy source of laughs: they're a reflection of their characters' ambition, a projection of their glittering notions of the American dream.
The film is probably also a tad overlong, but it's a blast to hang out with these people, and Russell creates such an infectiously zany vibe around them that if even you notice the running time, you probably won't mind. For all its brashness and big personality, "American Hustle" is a character study at its core—an exploration of dissatisfaction and drive, and the lengths to which we're willing to go for that elusive thing known as a better life.
Note: a few spoilers ahead.
“And the award for best dramatization of brain science in a motion picture goes to…”
"American Hustle" is going to win several awards, and if one were given for skillfully illustrating the dynamics that motivate us, director David O. Russell’s clever creation would run away with it as well. The movie is proof that entertainment can still teach profound lessons about the complicated business of thinking, so stealthily that you never see them coming.
The lessons of Russell’s Hustle are about desire, its dual nature and pitfalls – and whether he knew it or not, the lessons evince brain science writ large.
Nearly every character in "American Hustle" is infected with what’s known in cognitive science as over-motivation. The term is a paradox; we’re inclined to think that motivation has compounding value, and we can only have too little of it to serve our cause, never too much.
But cognitive research tells a different story, as craftily shown in a study called “Choking on the Money”, in which participants were offered cash for doing well on, of all things, a few rounds of Pac Man. Researchers varied the amounts of cash to elicit different levels of motivation among the players, with the hypothesis that the greater the cash reward, the greater the motivation to succeed—and the greater the cost of failure.
While participants played the game, the research team analyzed their brains with an fMRI machine. What they found was that players with the most cash on the line had the highest level of activity in their brains’ reward centers—the network of brain areas associated with pursuit of pleasure and reward. These same players also made the most mistakes.
As it turns out, the allure of more cash flooded the players’ reward centers with too much dopamine—the reward neurotransmitter—and they lost their cerebral grip.
Dopamine transforms anticipation of a reward into the motivation to go get it. All of us need dopamine to change “want” to “pursuit” to achieve anything, but our brains’ reward centers can be overwhelmed with “want,” triggering a deluge of dopamine that handicaps our ability to consciously evaluate and control the pursuit.
What this study tells us is that conscious reason is dismantled when uncontrolled desire takes over, when we’re caught in the neurochemical tornado of over-motivation.
"American Hustle" tells the story of characters drunk on desire, losing their grip on the controls and skidding towards disaster.
The setting for their unraveling is a fictionalized version of the 1978 FBI sting known as Abscam (short for "Abdul scam"), in which the FBI hired a convicted con-artist to dupe members of congress into taking bribes from a fake Middle Eastern sheikh.
Purposefully, it’s hard to find a character to really hate in this movie. Each acts on intentions they defend as well-placed. The first lesson of the Hustle is that it doesn’t matter. Whether or not we think we’re well-intentioned—and may even be able to make a compelling argument that our desires are “good”—uncontrolled desire will have a body count.
That’s the con the movie is really about. The title, “American Hustle”, is only a tangential reference to the fictionalized Abscam con, and more directly a description of the internal con—the one playing out in the neural pathways of our brains—that sucks us into a desire vortex.
The movie gives us a corrective to this problem, ironically illustrated by the master conman, Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale. Rosenfeld describes himself as a conman “from the feet up” (an inversion of the popular saying that a fish rots “from the head down”).
“From the feet up” is repeated by different characters as the story builds, less convincingly each time as if its power as a motivating mantra is being drained. For Rosenfeld, the guy who started with the worst intentions—only participating in the scam to snare corrupt congressmen and senators out of self-preservation—the world is turning upside down. He sees what’s happening through him and around him and knows that the train wreck is coming.
The master conman is an allegory for painfully learned metacognition—our capacity to detach from the immediacy of our here-and-now and “think about our thinking” to evaluate how we can change course. We can feel Rosenfeld detaching and seeing what’s coming next, though his own inflated desire has compromised his ability to stop it.
FBI agent Richard Damasio, played by Bradley Cooper, is fond of reminding Rosenfeld, “You’re working for me now.” Damasio’s desire explodes out of control; his ambition for fame as the agent who gets the bad guys and his desire for Rosenfeld’s savvy and seductive girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams) has blinded him to pitfalls Rosenfeld can already see.
Damasio’s story illustrates the self-delusion of unchecked desire, its power to invent rationales to justify anything we do to get what we want. We’ll use others (as he leverages Rosenfeld), we’ll abuse others, we’ll take risks that put everything on the line again and again—and, like Damasio, we’ll keep arguing that “everything is under control.”
The opposing position is embodied by Damasio’s supervisor, Stoddard Thorsen (played by Louis CK) who serves the role of Superego to Damasio’s perilously spastic Id. For a time, he seems to have the upper hand on Damasio’s desire, but his control is short-lived, and soon not only does he lose control, he’s beaten bloody for even trying.
The lesson of Richard Damasio is that dopamine overload is addictive; the more we get the more we want. When Damasio gets his first big win—the arrest of corrupt politicians—he’s hooked beyond redemption. He’s got to have an even bigger win—more recognition, more power, more everything. Damasio manages the external con, all the while falling prey to an internal con playing out in the flooded corridors of his brain.
Sydney Posser illustrates a different sort of desire, though it’s every bit as intense as Damasio’s. She’s over the arc of ambition and wants to “reinvent herself” as someone who can “live for real.” The problem is that she’s in a fog created by her desire for a married man (Rosenfeld) whom she can’t have completely.
She tells Rosenfeld, “You are nothing to me until you’re everything,” (a rephrasing of the thinking distortion known as all-or-nothing thinking in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). She knows that desperation fuels desire—a lesson she learned as a con artist taking money from desperate people—but she can’t liberate herself from her own desperation long enough to gain perspective, at least not until the casualties mount.
Rosenfeld’s wife, Roslyn (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is the edgiest of the characters, and in a sense the most conscious. While swayed by bloated ambition, she’s the character Russell uses to deliver overt messages about what’s going on in his darkly comic morality play.
She asks other characters to sniff her nail polish so they can smell its “sweet and sour” aroma—a mixture of the “irresistible with the rotten.” She talks about how all of the great perfumes also use that formula, and once you smell them “you can’t stop.” Just like Roslyn, the point isn’t subtle.
Her desire has a certain purity counterbalanced by her abrasiveness—she wants to be valued, and supercharging the chaos is her means to an end.
For all of these characters, the phrase “Be careful what you wish for” is an epic though excruciatingly true understatement. The cautionary tale embodied in "American Hustle", and buttressed by neuroscience, is that out-of-control desire leads to two things: more desire, and the crash.
I have a feeling that David O. Russell, who also directed "Silver Linings Playbook", boned up on cognitive research for this and his previous movie. I also think he's seen the Alan Parker directed film, "The Life of David Gale," and did some unpacking of college professor Gale's opening lecture to his class about the philosophy of the French psychoanalyst, Jaques Lacan. Gale (played by Kevin Spacey) tells the class that once we possess the thing we've been desiring—the very second we get it—we can't want it anymore.
"In order to continue to exist, desire must have its objects perpetually absent. It's not the "it" that you want, it's the fantasy of "it." So, desire supports crazy fantasies."
That is the uber lesson of "American Hustle" and it's what makes the Hustle especially American. We live in a culture designed to stoke our desire, to hype our "want"—for things, fame, sex—for more. Seldom do we pause to ask whether we really want the "it" or the fantasy of possessing it. Once the fantasy consumes us, it may be impossible to achieve clarity until it's too late.
But Russell isn't a director interested in leaving his audience with a despairing void. What ultimately makes "American Hustle" compelling, and why I think it's going to take home the goods come Oscar time, is that it doesn't shy away from the harsh while also not depriving us of hope.
In the end, Russell leaves us with a “sweet and sour” takeaway: finding a way out of the irresistible chaos of desire is possible—though not without loss. If you survive the wreck, you still have a shot at a silver lining.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter@neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.