In many ways “the con movie” was made for the big screen. Cinema is of course one big con. Actors pretend to be people they’re not, sets look like places they’re not, and we can believe years have passed before our eyes, even though in reality it has only been a couple of hours.
I must admit I have a soft spot for the genre. Whether it’s The Brothers Bloom, Duplicity, Catch Me If You Can, or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it’s a genre that’s easy to watch and keeps you guessing right up to the end.
Of course the flip side of the genre is that like the characters it’s portraying the films can be all style and no substance. American Hustle then is an attempt to keep what’s so entertaining about the genre while adding a bit more depth to proceedings. So does it suceed?
The film opens with Irving (Christian Bale) trying to perfect one of the worst comb overs in the history of cinema. Given his well being relies on his ability to fool people, his hair’s lack of authenticity causes us to question how good he is at his job. We soon realise, however, that his lack of ambition for truly good hair is much like his lack of ambition for a great con. He is happy getting by with lots of small schemes that earn him a healthy amount of money without alerting the authorities to his presence.
Unfortunately for him, his partner (in both sense of the word, business and pleasure) Syndey (Amy Adams) has been caught by the FBI. Now they must both help agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) in bringing down corrupt businessmen and politicians. However, it’s not long before all three get out of their depth as their small scale sting starts to grow more arms and legs than a mutated spider.
Also, the film contains Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s free spirited wife. In many ways she is of minor importance to the plot and yet steals just about every scene she is in. As such, it would be of little surprise if she picked up an oscar for the second year in a row next month.
Despite the laughs to be had every time Bale’s hair, or Lawrence is on screen, at the centre of this film is quite a dark heart. Like every con movie, pretty much everyone is corrupt, and keen to get as much as they can for as little as possible. It’s a view of the world it can be easy to succumb to. There are times in our lives we may look around us and feel we deserve more. Why is it that those at the top have it so easy while we have to struggle along as best we can?
And so con movies like the very schemes they represent, have that allure to them we must ultimately fight against. If we choose to believe, as these films suggest, that everyone is trying to con everyone else, we will feel there is no choice but do what they do and aim to get as much as we can for as little as possible.
However, if we choose to believe that the people around us are better than that, or simply that there’s more to life than getting one over on people around us, then the world becomes a different place.
Films are a con. Like any story, they choose to tell the side of it that suits the theme, narrative and characters they are portraying. The reality is that in the real sting operation American Hustle depicts, not every politician took the bribe they were offered. One even phoned the FBI to report the matter.
American Hustle is a wonderful, enjoyable film, full of great laughs and moments of great drama. But it is also a confidence trick. Let us not mistake the dark, fantastical world it creates for reality.