Thursday, January 23, 2014

Discussional: American Hustle


What It's About: Irving Rosenfeld (played by Oscar nominee Christian Bale) is a conniving con artist who, with the help of lover/business partner Sydney Prosser (Oscar nominee Amy Adams), bilks hard-luck loan applicants out of non-refundable "application fees." But when they get busted by kinda sleezy FBI agent Richie DiMaso (yet another Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper), they agree to help Richie with a convoluted sting operation that came to be known as Abscam—one involving foreign sheikhs and borrowed money and mafioso and, oh yes, politicians: Lots and lots of them.

And we must not forget to mention Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence, who you'll not be surprised to learn is an Oscar nominee), who may not have much to do with the central premise but still helps makes American Hustle the rollicking farce that it is.

Some Thoughts: It's not often that I can watch Christian Bale in a movie and think to myself, "hey, I'm better looking than he is." Sure, we both might've lost some hair and gained some paunch, but I do at least avoid extravagant comb-overs and open, belly-baring Hawaiian shirts.

Perhaps Irving's comb-over is emblematic of the movie itself: Almost everyone in it has something to hide.

Irving and Sydney are in the business of hiding. They're American hustlers, after all: They must hide their true intentions and businesses and relationships and even identities (with Sydney going especially over-the-top, masquerading as an English noblewoman named "Lady Edith Greensley"). Richie hides, too—whether it's his identity during a sting operation or the fact that he curls his hair. Ordinary folks masquerade as sheikhs and mafia lawyers. Crooked politicians masquerade as honest statesmen. Rosalyn tries—rather unsuccessfully—to hide her own insecurities and affections and straight-plain craziness.

You could argue (and I think the film does) that Mayor Carmine Polito—one of the prime politicians caught in the sting—is one of American Hustle's most honest and honorable characters. Set aside that killer pompadour (I would've loved to have had hair like that back in my preschool, Elvis-loving days), and you've got a guy who really wants to do something good for his community. He figures that, to get something done right in this world of ours, you gotta go a little wrong.

And that sense of moral tension is what, I think, gives this movie some Best Picture bona fides. Historical farces filled with fake sheikhs and science ovens are all well and good, but you need a little heft to make the cut.

It's the sort of tension that folks who believe in a moral God and a fallen world struggle with all the time. We're all created by a perfect Creator, and so there's part of His design in all of us. But the world and everything in it is twisted, which means we all fall short—and we're sometimes pulled in unhealthy or immoral directions. There's a dichotomy at work in our souls—one Rosalyn nicely alludes to when she talks about perfume.

"Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they're all laced with something nasty and foul," she tells Polito's wife, Dolly. "Sweet and sour. Rotten and delicious. … Flowers, but with garbage."

And so it is with us. We want to be good, but we kinda gravitate to the bad, as well. We want to do the right thing—but we want to do our own thing, too.

And so that's the world we've built for ourselves. There's a lot of good in it, but there's a lot of garbage, too. And we've got to deal with both sides of that world if we want to get stuff done. Jesus got that, actually. "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves," he told his disciples. "Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

But that's different than what most of us do—and what Carmine did—to get by. Most of us, instead of holding the paradox of the serpent and dove in our hand, we compromise. We allow ourselves to be a little bad for some unseen better purpose. And, as both Carmine and Richie discovers, that doesn't always work out so well.

There is a certain poetic justice at work here: Liars and schemers are caught through the lies and schemes of others. Justice, in a way, is served. But again, we're living in Rosalyn's perfume world, both rotten and delicious. We're not given a neat little ending, and what justice there is is meted out imperfectly. Happily ever after only happens in heaven and movies—and as this movie suggests, not always in the latter.

Questions:

1. We've talked about how most of the characters here have something to hide. Truth is, though, most of us hide in one way or another. We wear masks in certain situations or slip on a slightly different identity with some people. Do you find yourself "hiding" at times? When?

2. Sydney reveals her true, non-English noblewoman identity to both Irving and Richie eventually. Who sees the real you?

3. "I believe that you should treat people the way that you want to be treated," Irving tells Carmine. "Didn't Jesus say that?" He did—or at least something close to that. It sets the table for Irving's betrayal of Carmine, and makes it all the more painful or Irving and the audience. Yes, Carmine was involved in bribing politicians, but the movie encourages us to sympathize with the mayor. Should we feel sorry for him?

4. Is there a hero in American Hustle? Who? Is there a villain? Who?

5. Have you ever done something right for the wrong reasons? Have you ever done something wrong for the right ones?

What the Bible Says:

"… everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived."
2 Timothy 3:12-13

"What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs."
Luke 12:3

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