Andrew Lapin looks at David O. Russell’s career and dissects the theme of “reinvention” in the light of his last three films: The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle.

American Hustle Amy Adams

At a Washington, D.C. pre-release screening of American Hustle in December, writer-director David O. Russell told the crowd that he considers the movie to be the final leg of his thematic “Trilogy Of Reinvention,” after 2010’s The Fighter and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. The Glover Park Group, a lobbyist mega-firm, had organized the private showing. Among the audience for a film that turns wide-scale political corruption into popcorn entertainment: former senator and current MPAA president Chris Dodd, and at least one of Mitt Romney’s campaign staffers. American Hustle is based on Abscam, the late-’70s/early-’80s government sting that caught elected officials taking bribes from phony Arab sheiksand not much about politics has changed since then. There’s still an illegal deal happening every minute, still a revolving door of rich donors with agendas who can find an audience with public servants, still a collective shrug from all involved parties. The funniest part of the screening was during the Q&A, when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews thanked Russell for including a sympathetic politician in his movie—never mind that both the character (a fake Camden, N.J. mayor played by Jeremy Renner) and his real-life counterpart (former Camden, N.J. mayor Angelo Errichetti) took bribes.

But if there’s one thing Washington knows, as acidly chronicled in Mark Leibovich’s 2013 bestseller This Town, it’s the art of the reinvention. Do bad things, get caught, make an act of cooperation and remorse, and before too long, reach your happy ending with nary a scratch. Since that’s exactly the trajectory followed by the heroes of American Hustle, it makes sense they would know best when they say every con needs to be sold “from the feet up.” To the extent that American Hustle does depict reinvention, it’s of this political variety—the kind where, after prevailing over ugliness with more ugliness, the heroes of the piece are allowed to retreat scot-free, carrying big gobs of cash.

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