I’m a big fan of David O. Russell’s films, especially I Heart Huckabees and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. Huckabees in particular is one of my favorites, an awesome tale of awakening told with brilliance, humor, and creativity. So when American Hustle came out and started getting good reviews, I was eager to see it. Would it, like Huckabees and Silver Linings, be a story of awakening? Russell has said that he only has one story to tell, so perhaps this would be another amazing telling of that one story? Or maybe he’d found a new story? I was eager to see for myself.
If you go to Hustle expecting an entertaining diversion from your everyday worries, you may be disappointed. I found the dramatic turns difficult to sit with. Not that it’s badly acted. Far from it. You’re drawn right in, but there is a sense of dread, of things hurtling forward towards hurt, that wasn’t easy to sit with. The film is so powerfully acted, so well written, that I was drawn into it, yes, but I found it hard to feel all that the characters were going through.
Is this a story of awakening, I asked myself at the 90 minute mark? If so, I sure didn’t see it! I saw a bunch of psychopaths and con artists who are in life for themselves alone, playing everyone in their lives. Wife and husband – playing each other. Business partners – playing each other. Everyone in the film is either a player or a hapless victim of players and the leads are all ruthless, intelligent players. The first half of the film paints a vibrant, three dimensional portrait of life that feels like an adult version of Lord of the Flies. It’s each for him or herself!
That’s when we meet Carmine Polito, the mayor of decayed Camden, NJ, played with skill and nuance by Jeremy Renner. We see that Carmine is also a player – in his case, one who makes big political deals that bring him money, power, and political favors. But is he just as bad a character as Irving, Sydney, and Richie? It’s hard to tell, but maybe. Maybe. But he does seem to love his family and the racially diverse people of Camden. Yes, he’s a corrupt politician but one with some heart. And this heart and basic humanity, though enmeshed in corrupt systems, collides with Irving to create a moment of metanoia, a change of heart that I think marks a turning point in the narrative from moral corruption and psychopathy to a story of awakening to interconnectedness.
Irving’s moment of metanoia occurs after an attempt to entrap Carmine Polito fails. Lured to a meeting which is set up to entrap him, Carmine sniffs a rat and walks out of the meeting without taking the briefcase full of cash that would have landed him in jail. Irving runs out after him, desperate to find a way to complete the entrapment, so he can escape his own karma. Irving is desperate, not in control. He is a player about to go to jail, perhaps, if he cannot complete the entrapment. In vulnerable desperation, Irving reaches out and connects with Carmine. Can he win his trust back and complete the entrapment? And then the magic moment: Carmine and he realize they’re both from the same hometown, both love the same local restaurant. And sharing memories of a few things genuinely loved awakens in Irving his basic humanity and goodness. In a moment of openness born of desperation and vulnerability, Irving has an initial awakening and makes his first real friend ever. From that moment on, he is a new man. But how to play this deck of cards he has dealt himself?
He’s realized that he and Carmine are fundamentally “of one root,” of one essence, but Irving also realizes that he is in a helluva tough situation. In fact, as we watch, we’re not sure (and I imagine him sharing our uncertainty) whether he’s going to be alive by the time the credits roll. His task, his new task, is to navigate his way through all that life is about to throw at him, the results of his prior behavior, without trashing his one friend in life – Carmine Polito. He has seen the light, but he is still so mired in the darkness! How will he find his way through to a fuller life? Will he live long enough to integrate the insight he’s had and reflect it in his life? Those are the burning questions we take into the film’s last 45 minutes. I won’t analyze those final scenes here. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film, but is an exhilarating ride.
If this is a story of awakening, it’s certainly not a conventional one. Unlike The Matrix’s Neo, the hero of American Hustle never looks good. He does not vanquish evil, don shades, and take flight. On the contrary, Irving’s the kind of scum that most of us thank God we never encounter. He’s a man out for personal gain at the expense of everyone he knows. So how could this be a story of awakening? Because it’s a story of what awakening is actually like for people today, for people like us. We don’t go off to a secluded Shaolin Temple or Magic Monastery, we awaken while living ordinary lives: in society, working for a living, surrounded by imperfect friends and family. We awaken in micro-moments, only to discover the horrible mess we’ve created of our lives. No, it’s not so bad compared to Irving’s situation, but in our own way, isn’t it true that there is a growing sense of lostness, disillusionment, and entanglement in commitments that somehow miss the mark? So Russell’s making his point by creating a much more dramatic situation than what most of us face, but aren’t the dynamics similar? Aren’t we all sensing that life could be so much grander? It could be, seems like it should be so much grander, and yet we are so enmeshed in things as they are!
If there’s a message in this Hustle, perhaps it’s that there’s no matter where we find ourselves, we can always move forward. The way may be complicated, the path may be difficult, and we might not live to see the fruition of our aspirations, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to live up to what we’ve seen in our best moments. This is the path to awakening. Right here, right now. Feet on the ground, rooted in the here and now. No matter the length of the journey to awakening, it always starts with a first step. Oh, or maybe with a hustle.