The past is complicated. It only exists in memory, and, while the truth of what occurred is fixed, these facts can be changed and warped simply because of perspective into what we know as memories. Nostalgia undoubtedly comes out of these warped views. It refers to a sense many have that times gone by were better than the time we currently live through.
It’s also a familiar topic for cinema, which ably tackles the topic in films like The Last Picture Show or even Midnight in Paris. These films question what it is about the past that fascinates us, and what we might hope to find there that we can’t seem to find in our daily lives. American Hustle is not a film that can readily be looked at through this lens. Upon its release it was compared to films like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights. It was met with widespread acclaim, and was championed by its supporters because of its wonderful performances and incredible ability to shift from the comedic to dramatic perfectly and instantly.
This, at least, is how the film was received upon its release. The consensus seemed to be that it was a kind of revisionist Scorsese picture, one that divided the community writing about it. Some thought it proved just as worthy of discussion and thought as any Scorsese film, while others seemed to find the film messy, unorganized, and an acting exercise above any devotion to plot or even filmmaking.
Partially, the comparison to Scorsese is a valid one, as Russell certainly plays with many common elements of the master’s films. In looking at Hustle, however, I think there is more to be said about the way this film functions on its own merits. The film is certainly one that takes it characters seriously and is perhaps more concerned with being true to them than it is with being true to the events as they occurred. As the film does this, though, it also says something about the way we view and idealize the past.
Largely, films that work with nostalgia find that it has been misplaced, and that things that we typically romanticize were less idyllic than we want or hope that they were. In some ways then, American Hustle confounds these examples. Whatever can be said about the film, it is certainly one that finds joy in its period. This is evident not only in the decor, which is almost too indicative of its period, but also in the wild fashion and hair, both of which seem comical to us today.
Even as the film luxuriates in its period, it doesn’t present easy truths about its world or characters. This was an era where politics was filthy and ambition meant taking down local and national politicians. Though we ultimately find sympathy for the characters the film revolves around, they are far from noble heroes. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), the film’s central couple, are both con men who work on the edges and steal money from desperate people. The only character who may usually be seen in a noble light, the FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who gets the con artists involved in his scheme, is ultimately the most morally corrupt character in the film. This is not to say that Richie is evil, per se, but more that he, along with every other character in the film, is complex, real, and human.
In creating characters this complicated, the film rejects nostalgia, but does so not by rejecting the period as one filled with vanity or ridiculous attire. Instead, American Hustle argues that the world is not simpler because the people are no simpler. We find this not only in the moral dilemmas the characters face, but also in the dynamics between them.
Women dominate this film in an era when it would be entirely appropriate to push all of these characters away from the center of the action. Amy Adams’ Sydney is the film’s emotional center, distilling ideas about self-deception into the many layers that she weaves in her character. She also drives much of the film’s plot, changing Irving’s life with her arrival and disagreeing with him about their involvement in the FBI con. What’s more, her argument that their involvement will lead to nothing but trouble is ultimately correct. She’s smarter than Irving, and while they undoubtedly make a good team, she does more than her fair share on it. Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is volatile, wild, and unruly, and proves to be a destructive force that threatens the lives of every other character. Interestingly, the only person who seems to understand what a threat she is early on in the film is Sydney, who is quite literally the other woman.
The film’s inherent sense of gender equality, and its understanding that the men in the film will never see Rosalyn as a problem deepen its rejection of nostalgia. American Hustle understands two things about its women that could easily have been lost. The first is that they are real, complicated, sometimes stupid people who also manage to be just as screwed up as the men. In recognizing this, the film shows us women who have power equal to that of their male counterparts, even if they wield it in entirely different ways. The second is that, although these women are shown to be as dangerous, complicated, and involved in the plot as the men, the men in the film outright refuse to accept or acknowledge this. This is evidenced not only in their underestimation of Rosalyn, but also in Richie’s anger and confusion at being outwitted by Sydney. The film has a feminist streak, one which reminds the viewer that even though the gender politics at work in the film are indicative of its period, this does not mean that the women who existed are any less powerful, cunning, or interesting than they are today.
American Hustle is a subversive picture. It’s one that sets itself up as a con movie, but reveals itself to be something more complicated and interesting than that. It’s a film about people, ones who are fundamentally flawed and entirely three dimensional. There are no good or bad guys in this movie, and the men do not overpower the women either. Instead, we see the kind of complicated dynamics between people, whether from the 1830s, the 1970s, or still to this day. They are ones that exist not because of the period in which they work, but because of the people who live there.
These people are fighters, survivors, and complex, hard-working individuals. They may seem familiar, and that is largely because of the ways in which these are people who have always existed, and are ones that will continue to exist. This is ultimately the way in which the film rejects nostalgia. Yesterday was no easier than today because the people there were just as complex, interesting, and flawed as they are today. Look at American Hustle this way and suddenly, and perhaps surprisingly, it will become a picture worth looking at, analyzing, and remembering for years to come.