HOLLYWOOD – David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is cleaning up in the early part of an awards season that was meant to belong to Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” And that ain’t no con.
The movie snagged a Golden Globe for best comedy as well as acting awards for two of its stars, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. The cast won an ensemble prize at last week’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, often seen as an indicator ahead of the Oscars, and the film is tied with “Gravity” for the most Academy Award nominations — 10, including best picture — drawing comparisons to last year’s best picture winner, “Argo.”
“American Hustle” also resembles “Argo” in terms of style. Both are stories based on events from the 1970s, but Russell’s film is mainly a screwball comedy caper that reminds the viewer from the get-go that only “Some of this actually happened.”
What actually happened was the FBI Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early ’80s, which included a sting targeting public officials. “American Hustle” turns it into a film that’s equal parts “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Boogie Nights” (1997), and unlike the actual scandal, whose players are largely out of the public eye, the performances in the film are proving to be particularly memorable.
“It really is intriguing to play a character who isn’t as smart as she thinks she is,” Adams tells The Japan Times. She plays Sydney Prosser, the made-over love of shady protagonist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who has created a small, seemingly legal business empire and has a particularly clingy wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence).
“We all know self-inflated people like that — in and out of the (film) industry. People who become cons have that mentality, that they’re fooling other people, that others are dumb because they follow the rules,” Adams says. “In the end, though, most people who try to cheat the system wind up cheating themselves.
“That does sound awfully moralistic, but (the film) bears it out. So does most of reality.”
Another aspect of “American Hustle” that intrigued Adams was the “physicality” of the woman she plays, or rather, became.
“I’m not a method actor,” she says. “What I disagree with is (the direction to) ‘act natural.’ For me, it’s about ‘being natural,’ natural within the character. We’ve all seen these trophy wives and girlfriends. They work hardest at looking good — that is, once they’ve latched onto a guy they think is smart, a guy who can make the con work out successfully.”
Adams says she has played a lot of non-glamorous characters whose looks were secondary, perhaps referring to her Oscar-nominated roles in “The Master” (2012) and “The Fighter” (2010).
“(However,) in this scenario, looks are essential to the women’s sense of being successful go-getters,” she says. “It’s that goofy, exaggerated ’70s look that somewhat carried over into the next decade. People seemed to have more nerve . . . in clothing. Bradley (Cooper) had it down pat with the chains and shiny open shirts and that (permed) hair. Christian went the other way — from handsome actor to sleazy operator with the combed-over strands of hair and those so-’70s glasses. I wasn’t there, but photos from the 1970s fascinate me.”
Adams was born in Italy in 1974 and her family settled in Colorado when she was 8 years old. Her costar, Bale, was born the same year as her in Wales. While he thinks the fashion is spot on, he agrees the story is not 100 percent kosher.
“Like they say, ‘Some of this happened.’ But with anything derived from real events, there’s the commercial no-no of going documentary,” he says. “David has a keen, wry sense of humor. He wanted to infuse (the film) with that and it works on a level of commercial entertainment and it works as a way of bringing the audience in and making what could be gruesome and desperate, lighter and more ironic.
“Of course, I’m sure for the people involved — the ones (the story) is generally or loosely based on — this must have been like life or death. To them it was dead serious.”
Bale says that for those who were actually involved in the Abscam scandal, there must have been a point where they thought they would pull off the con — until the moment things got much heavier.
“One very real thing (in the film) is how you think your personal problems are major till you meet someone who presents much bigger ones.”
Irving’s biggest problem is his marginalized and crazy wife, Bale explains, until Irving and Sydney meet ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper, who also co-produced the film). Richie entraps and then manipulates the once-confident con team into going after dirty politicians.
Russell’s last offbeat effort was the successful “Silver Linings Playbook,” which starred Cooper and Lawrence, who received a best actress Oscar for her performance.
“David is a choice director and collaborator,” Cooper says. “Actors are lining up — no pun there — to work with him. He just encourages a free flow of ideas and he’s not afraid of gamey, undesirable characters. He feels, like somebody once said, that nothing human is completely alien to him.
Cooper says he, like most actors, grew up watching male protagonists who were usually upright and two-dimensional. He likes that with Russell — and particularly in “American Hustle” — this isn’t the case.
“It’s not about evil villains and shining heroes; everyone’s too human,” he says. “I like that, I prefer it. It’s more interesting for the actors and it’s more interesting for the audience. It sort of keeps you guessing. It’s OK if a character is somewhat cartoony, as extremists can be, so long as the human aspects — the pathos and failings, are there.
“In a way, this is almost a costume picture. When we were shooting, we’d compare notes about what we were wearing. We’d groan and commiserate — at least the guys did. The girls would pretend to, but they looked fantastic . . . most of the time! The whole thing was very period.”
Adams says “American Hustle” left her painfully aware of how corrupt men can easily corrupt women who aren’t particularly greedy to begin with.
“Women, but maybe more so in the 1970s, were — and still are — so willing to follow a man’s lead,” she says. “I’ve always wondered what exactly is in the heads of women who pair off with rotten men — men they know are sheer rotten, like dictators. Those women sell their souls.
“When I read this script, one of the first things I asked myself was, ‘Is this woman venal to begin with? To what degree does the man she becomes involved with influence her motivation and her character — or her lack of character?’ “
The question of character also comes into play in one of the film’s other conflicts, between lawmakers and lawbreakers.
“A star actor I know once said he chose to play characters the audience might not identify with but that they preferred to the rest of the film’s characters,” Bale says. “I’m not playing any kind of hero, but (my character) doesn’t come off as badly as he might, thanks to the behavior of certain others who are supposed to be in high contrast to him.”
Like Adams, Bale says he was also drawn to the challenge of a physical transformation for the film. In 2004, the actor astonished Hollywood by cutting an emaciated figure in the independent film “The Machinist,” for which he lost almost 30 kg. In less than a year, though, he packed on the muscle to play Batman in the first chapter of the successful Christopher Nolan film franchise.
“It’s a long way from (‘The Machinist’) to a Dark Knight and over to this,” he says with a laugh. “There’s not much a plain-looking or balding guy can do to alter his appearance, and the irony is that when they try to dress it all up, they often look worse. But certain prototypes of the crooked, conniving wheeler-dealers come to mind and my look this time out helped me absorb the character. I think, though it’s generalizing, that men who are aware of their physical shortcomings tend to move closer to breaking the rules — as if it’s compensation, or payback. That’s the impression I got from seeing film and photographs of some of those big-time swindlers — and not just from the 1970s.”
Quickly think of some Japanese criminals. Does Bale’s theory hold true? Adams says she has read about some “Japanese hustles” that surprised her, and hopes audiences in Japan will be just as entertained as she was by this particular con.
“I think other nations’ scandals are more shocking, in a way, than one’s own,” she says, “but I think people enjoy stories about wrongdoers who take big risks and have big, dramatic problems, including in their love lives.”
Bale agrees the film will be perceived differently depending on where it’s screened.
“Each country tends to notice different things about another,” he says. “I think Brits will focus on how brash and colorful Americans of either legal inclination tend to be. The greed aspect? Well, that’s pretty much worldwide, though I think Americans worship the millionaire ideal more than most cultures and are more avid to identify (them) as ‘winners.’ As for Japan’s take on the movie, I think they’ll laugh more often than not — and hopefully enjoy the crazy ride.”
“American Hustle” opens in theaters nationwide on Jan. 31. For a review of the film, turn to the Film Page. For more information, visit www.americanhustle-movie.com.