It's hard to empathize with people as morally corrupt as those in American Hustle. Even the 'good' guys are slightly disreputable, and the 'bad' guys are perhaps fooling themselves more than their marks. This concept of people constantly putting themselves up as something other than what they are could serve as the theme of American Hustle, where those who are trying to get ahead by scamming the other guy end up getting scammed themselves, or do they.
Contrary to what people may have heard, the story is not as complicated as advertised. Based on the ABSCAM FBI investigation of government officials, American Hustle starts with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who has a good confidence scheme bilking people out of small amounts in exchange with the promise (though not guarantee) of more. Soon, Irving meets and begins an affair with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), upping the ante by adding a touch of class to the scheme by having her pose as 'Lady Edith Greensley', a British titled woman. The scam soon attracts the attention of one Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), FBI agent with burning ambition. He puts the squeeze on both Irving and Lady Edith (he has no idea she is actually American) to help him in his own investigation of corrupt government officials. His main target? His Honor, Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whom he believes is corrupt and apt for bribery.
Polito, however, is actually a very nice guy, who genuinely cares for his constituency. Irving starts to become fond of Carmine, and the relationships between Irving, Sydney/Edith, and Richie soon start getting complicated. Sydney/Edith appears to be playing Richie, or could it be that because Irving won't/can't leave his adopted child and his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon if ever there was one. In turns jealous, emotional, and insecure, Rosalyn and Sydney are engaged in a war over their man.
Eventually, Richie bites off more than he can chew, and despite himself he gets too caught up in all the planning, the scheming, and is himself conned by the experts. Sydney and Irving get together, Carmine does get caught up in the ABSCAM fallout but in exchange for getting the money back to the FBI he gets a reduced sentence, and Rosalyn gives Irving the divorce and marries a man she had met at a crucial party where all our characters meet and agendas collide.
See, it wasn't all that complicated, was it?
American Hustle borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese's cinematic style, particularly Goodfellas. We have the rapid camera movement. We have the voice-over from the various characters explaining motivations. We have a fierce devotion to the time period. Interestingly, both Goodfellas and American Hustle take place in the 1970s, and the attention to detail in both music and clothing is one of the highlights of both films. Regarding American Hustle, director David O. Russell (who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Warner Singer) does as close as anyone has come to making a Scorsese film that wasn't actually a Scorsese film itself.
The film has solid performances all around. Christian Bale makes Irving both a figure of ridicule (that comb-over! that belly!) and perhaps the smartest, even the most transformed character. He is a charlatan, makes no apologies for it, but doesn't want to take down Carmine because he sees that the Mayor really has his heart in the right place (if not the way of getting there). Amy Adams gives just one of the best performances of the year that I've seen as Sydney. Her faux-British accent never falters, and in many ways she is playing two characters: Sydney herself, and Sydney-as-Edith. We never really figure out what her true motivations regarding Richie are. Does she really fall for him? Is she using him? If she is using him, is it to save her own skin or because she loves Irving?
Bradley Cooper is continuing his march to being an actual actor and not just a pretty man with beautiful eyes. Richie is the classic hero who falls due to his hubris. Outwardly confident, he lives at home and never thinks things through. Even when Sydney dares to unmask herself he still doesn't quite get it. Moreover, Richie's inability to measure himself and realize that things are becoming too big for him make him in many ways. If we go for any actual showcase in terms of performances, it has to be Lawrence's wild, unhinged, uninhibited Rosalyn, who infuriates and actually endears herself as the complicated figure who nearly brings the whole enterprise down due to her own inability to control herself (yes, there is something funny when Rosalyn describes to the unwitting Mob guy she likes her husband's work with 'that curly-haired IRS guy, tipping the Mob off about how something's amiss in all this).
I think it would be unfair to leave out Renner, who doesn't get as much attention as the four main characters, but whose Mayor is by all measures a nice fellow who does the wrong things for the right reasons. There is also an appearance by Robert DeNiro which reminds us of how good DeNiro can be when he isn't making money by parodying himself.
Russell also goes out of his way to make American Hustle a fantastic-looking film. The big piece where all the characters get together for a party is filmed so overtly cinematically (smoke and flashing lights), but at least within the confines of the story, it doesn't look like they are out of place. It makes the appearance of the Wife and the Mistress at the same event one filled with tension. American Hustle is so entrenched in the era that we are totally taken in to seeing the film as a document of the curious decade of disco, stagflation, and one can see that perhaps it isn't so far removed from the setting of something like Argo.
If I were to fault American Hustle for something, it is that the Scorsese-like voice-overs (by Bale, Adams, and to a lesser degree Cooper) are introduced, then basically forgotten. Same goes for the non-linear story, where we start at Point A, then go back in time to get to Point A in the middle of the film, and then continue chronologically. I made a note that the voice-overs also do a show-and-tell, where we are told something, then shown what we were told. I'm not a fan of that kind of working.
Still, we do laugh at these characters (Richie and Irving's vanity, Rosalyn's wildness, Sydney's cleavage...well, maybe not laugh at that but thought it deserved a mention), and the situations can be funny and clever at the same time. It is a long picture, but excellently crafted and performed.
Who is the master: the artist or the forger? Irving asks Richie this when he reveals that the painting he's admiring in a museum (a sideline for Irving) is a fake, one of his own too. There is no deception here: American Hustle is simply an excellent film all around, not just about how 'some of the things in the film actually happened' as the opening title tells us, but about the unique ability to deceive ourselves and others is perhaps one of humanity's greatest characteristics.
One more thing. American Hustle is so true to its 1970s style that for the life of me whenever I think of the film, all I can see is Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper going to a disco, getting their groove on to Donna Summer's I Feel Love. I don't know if it will become an iconic scene, but is it a highlight in a film full of them.