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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 8:58 am | Fair 52º


Cinema in Focus: ‘American Hustle’

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

David Russell, who wrote and co-directed last year's smash hit Silver Linings Playbook, has done it again with American Hustle.

By the time Playbook got to the Academy Awards, every lead actor in the film had been nominated for an Oscar with Jennifer Lawrence winning for Best Actress. This time most of the same leads are back, and it is likely that they will all be nominated again.

Based loosely on the Abscam bribery scandals of the late 1970s, American Hustle gives us a gritty look at the maneuvering of con men inside and outside of government who are trying to make a name for themselves.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), along with his partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), are sleazy con artists who decide to take advantage of the growing interest in the development of Atlantic City as a potential gambling mega-destination. The unwitting patsies in the scam are a local mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner); a mafia kingpin, Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro); and an FBI agent out to make a name for himself, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Topping of the cast is Lawrence playing Irving Rosenfeld's ditzy wife, Rosalyn.

Similar to Playbook, the characters portrayed by Bale, Adams, Cooper, Lawrence, De Niro and Renner are complete caricatures of the underbelly of New Jersey. From the dress to the combovers to the accents, this is a comic-book version of life on the streets in 1978, and it is what gives the movie its charm.

Equally important is the fact that none of these characters has a moral compass. Every action is self-centered, every conversation is tainted with words of disrespect, and despite the love interests represented, there is not a hint of real love demonstrated in their lives. There is a lot of humor, and in some respects watching the film reminded me of sitting in a theater as a kid watching The Three Stooges.

For those old enough to remember the 1978-80 Abscam trials, the FBI set up a sting operation with members of Congress pretending to have local business people and officials asking for their support in getting legislation passed that would benefit the economic agenda of the requestors, and consequently each member of Congress quietly got a large sum of cash for their campaign. Each meeting was secretly filmed, and subsequently the investigation ultimately led to the conviction of a United States senator, six members of the House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

We won't spoil the story, but needless to say, American Hustle takes many twists and turns before the story is concluded. The sad part about the lives of the characters involved is that their emptiness and hunger for any kind of real life is what makes the movie funny. To live in such a state of emotional and moral starvation in the animal world would cause us to launch a rescue or restoration effort. In the human world, it just causes us to laugh at their lack of ability to transcend their circumstances, and we see them as being like the early Romans who grew weary of their plight and couldn't wait for the lions to come and devour them.

The question is, what does this really say about us?


» When the moral and spiritual life is removed from human relationships, we are left with an intolerable void. How have you protected yourself from such emptiness?

» The fact that success in itself, as in becoming a senator or representative, is not satisfying is often a surprise to people. Since our artists have created novels and films like this exposing this truth, why do you think people are still surprised? Do they not have the ears to hear?

» In some ways, our economic engine based on consumption uses the science of marketing to hustle us all to buy things we don't really need. How do you protect yourself from such American hustlers?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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