Director David O. Russell’s last two films were wonderful. Both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook gave us painfully exact depictions of family dysfunction, then magically transformed that dysfunction into old-fashioned movie-style happy endings. Cynical cranks could complain that that’s not the way it works in real life. But, in fact, they would be wrong. People do redeem their lives, even if they don’t do it with the neatness and glamour of the big screen. The style was pure Hollywood, but the underlying point remained honest and true.
What is not true is that corrupt politicians really care about the people they serve and are just taking that suitcase full of money to help the poor citizens of their communities. Lowlife pols have been pushing that line of garbage since before Caesar and it is now what it was then: self-justifying crap. Corruption bleeds a city, a state, a nation dry. A Boss Tweed may deliver a poor family a turkey on Christmas — and Barack Obama may give you a “free” phone or confiscate another citizen’s earnings to pay for your health care — but in the end, what these self-serving phonies do saps the polity of money, freedom and energy. Corruption benefits the corrupt — unless and until, for whatever reason, they get caught by the law.
American Hustle buys into the political liars’ lies with wide-eyed childlike innocence. As a result it’s a movie with no moral or emotional center. It’s well-directed and well-written, and it would be impossible for me to overpraise the performances of its wonderful cast. Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and an almost unrecognizable Jeremy Renner are beyond brilliant. They are the closest thing this starless age has to stars.
But the thesis of the movie — loosely based on the 1970’s Abscam sting that busted several corrupt mostly Democrat politicians and was therefore deemed a questionable enterprise by the Democrat media — is this: the FBI are the over-ambitious bad guys for running down the pitiful, good-hearted pols who only want to help the poor, the black, the disenfranchised of their states and cities. Those pols never would have taken that money for themselves. Oh no! And even if they did, it was just because they let their egos lead them astray. The real bad guys, the real money guys, are getting away scot free! So we’re supposed to root for con men who steal from fools, and we’re supposed to boo and hiss the lawmen who bring them to justice.
Well, in a pig’s eye. The point is not that the FBI are saints. The point is they are doing what’s right here and the politicians are just what they seem: corrupt, connected, greedy skunks who should be in jail not in office. The emotional emptiness and flatness of the film come directly from its silly and skewed morality.
The movie gets a 96/98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I guess Russell put one over on the audience. But despite his obvious talent — and the acting genius of a powerhouse cast — this is a bad film that distorts reality in a way his previous happy endings never did.