Belief in Love: Thoughts on ‘American Hustle’ and ‘Her’

By: Daniel Reynolds

I’m convinced falling in love is the easy part. We’ve all been there; a sudden look, a deep conversation, a charged moment, a shared secret. It shakes us from the ordinary. But still, that’s easy. The terrifying part comes afterwards. How do we get that love in return? And if we do start to get it, how do we keep it? How do we know it is real and forever? The painfully short and obvious answer is: we don’t. Film, as with the best art, can try to gain purchase onto this unsettled but fertile ground in an attempt to more satisfyingly explain. The latest films from David O. Russell and Spike Jonze, creators of American Hustle and Her respectively, each grapple with these questions of love in their own way. For Russell, it is enough to zing through the past, to explode the notions of love and trust by way of belief and justice. Jonze, meanwhile, casts his eye to the future to relate the evolutions of technology with the leaps of the human heart. The two films are wholly different (despite the presence of Amy Adams in both), and yet they scratch at that same itchy unknown.

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American Hustle is a lot to process. It begins half-way through its story, then whirls back and explains. Everyone in the movie is probably lying (hell, the opening title card carefully suggests that ‘some of this stuff actually happened’). It is a film that goes all over the map. At the film’s centre is Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a small time con man and hair care enthusiast. Rosenfeld meets Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser and – bolt of lightning – he is in love. Of course, he’s already married to Rosalyn (played by Jennifer Lawrence, who, I suspect, watched Goodfellas – or at least Jersey Shore – on a loop in preparation for this role). The love triangle is complicated by the presence of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso, an overly ambitious FBI agent with an eye for Sydney (well, her British high-class alter ego anyway). Is this starting to get confusing? Hold on, there’s more. The film is perched on the true story of the “Abscam Scandal” which apparently involved entrapping and bribing politicians (including Jeremy Renner’s poor dupe Carmine Polito), getting embroiled with the mob, and at least one fake Arab sheik. Honestly, don’t think about it too hard.

What American Hustle has going for it is a surplus of energy. Russell has clearly modeled his film after the more springy aspects of Scorcese. There are a lot of fast camera pans, some perfectly curated 70s music, and dynamite acting that teeters on the absurd. Fortunately, the film is gifted with two rather miraculous performances by Bale and Adams. His Rosenfeld rolls out with a gut and the aforementioned hairpiece, while Adams’ Sydney never met a plunging neckline she didn’t like. They both anchor the film’s “it’s not a lie if you believe it” Costanza mentality, fearlessly embodying the film’s aspirations for finding a certain love and peace, for sharing your little corner of the world with another person and being happy. Through all the film’s pyrotechnics (disco dancing! drug problems! the mafia! Michael Pena!), there is Bale schlumping his way into our hearts and Adams quietly finding her way out of trouble.

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When I last wrote about Joaquin Phoenix he was wailing and gnashing his teeth as the rabid Freddie Quell in The Master. He was looking for love then, too. With his goofy performance art sabbatical and reduced presence on the media circuit, it is easy to forget that Phoenix is a fantastically versatile actor. His role as Theodore Twombly in Her calls for him to develop scene after scene in isolation. Theodore writes personal hand written letters for other people for a living; it’s a sly comment on our desire to both personalize and expedite everything. It explains much about what Jonze is getting at. Theodore has friends, and an ex-wife (Rooney Mara), but he appears mostly reserved, sensitive, unsure of himself. Phoenix plays off of the sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the operating system he gradually falls in love with, but he does so largely alone. Without the pyrotechnics of storms at sea, exploding space stations or other CGI, Phoenix drives the film forward with his remarkable face and voice, at once calm, confused, distraught, in and out of love, isolated. He is divining a relationship out of thin air. This is harder work than he makes it seem.

Jonze has designed his film with the colour scheme of Apple, and the careful form of Ikea. His future world is all sherbert tinged and effortlessly clean. Technology is pervasive but does not appear to be overly disruptive or dystopic. People appear to be effectively connected yet more distant somehow. Is this the future or right now? It sounds familiar. The elevator in Theodore’s building projects images of trees scrolling past. The truth is we don’t know how far any of this technology will actually go. Oh sure, we think about it, write about it, try to plan for it. But, there is Amazon telling us about drone deliveries, Watson on Jeopardy, or those terrifying GIFs of robots, and we are struck by the realness of it.

I write too much about authenticity in movies. I try to justify my feelings in the face of the silver screen. Jonze is doing the same (and so is Russell, in his way). We spend so much time staring into these cold rectangles, filling our heads and hearts with what? Finding himself alone and apart, Theodore wants love to be a solid, quantifiable mass; even with an ever-expanding computer consciousness, it should have dimensions and a binary designation. You are with me, or you are not with me. Her deals in sci-fi tropes, in a future where technology continues its pervasive creep into our lives, but it is not cold. If anything, Jonze manages something else entirely. Yes, technology will evolve, perhaps even surpass us, but won’t we also learn from it? The beautiful hopeful note at the end of Her believes we can; a translucent screen lighting the dim cave of self-awareness, opening one’s eyes to the breathtaking horizon.

It's a good time for awhile.

It’s a good time for awhile.

American Hustle offers love as the ultimate con, from the feet up. For Russell, his characters are all urgently trying to convince everyone else of who they are and what they believe. Bale’s Rosenfeld hairpiece is evidence enough of that. The film’s energy, along with all of that onscreen subterfuge, accumulates and by the end we feel like we’ve been taken for a bit of a ride too. The figures and numbers don’t all quite add up, the conclusion perhaps a tad too pat. And yet, as with Her, the situation – the emotion in play –  has somehow grown beyond the understanding of some of its participants. You can practically see the questions rising out of Cooper’s overly stressed hairdo. We stand along with all of these characters in the present, an eye towards that sleazy past and the spotless future, and we have some inkling of an answer. Can we find love? Yes, but it’ll never be easy.

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