Let's all think back to just a few years ago. It was a simpler time for David O. Russell, a time of being "that guy who argued on set with Lily Tomlin," a time of releasing critically divisive films here and there. The days of I Heart Huckabees are naught but a foggy memory, and Russell's name seems to have become synonymous (since The Fighter) with a sort of mainstream prestige picture. The months of lead-in on American Hustle promised what Russell delivers best: a brilliant ensemble cast adopting heavy regional accents with which to spit wise-ass dialogue until the dramatic undertones of the story give way to something comedic. It delivered just that, and it seems like it's nearly impossible to turn around without the film getting top billing on a year-end list, racking up nominations, or being declared -- by enthusiastic critics -- a perfect film. *Perfect* is a touch excessive, but what American Hustle is is entertaining. 100%, absolutely, in every way possible: this is a movie movie, the kind you watch because it's fun, smart, slick, and satisfying, the kind you watch with a bucket of popcorn, the kind you rave to your friends about.
As is the case with all the best stories, American Hustle is built around a bit of truth, but devolves into freewheeling, ecstatic fiction. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer root the tale in the true life Abscam sting operations conducted by the FBI in the late '70s. The truth is that a con artist worked alongside the bureau to entrap supposedly corrupt members of Congress into taking bribes from a phony Arab sheikh. From that morsel, the two have concocted a flashy team of con-artists, politicians, and gangsters, and they move them around like dolls in a dream house. You start with the right haircuts, the right outfits, the right glasses. You move on to the right soundtrack, the right pop songs, the right accents. You let the characters swagger, you force them into scenarios, you dream up new ways to get them out of trouble. This is what American Hustle does. It blends the lightest parts of Scorsese gangster pictures with the mood of Ocean's 11 and a touch of history and runs with anything it can think of.
That's not to say that American Hustle is sloppy. Messy, maybe, but lovingly constructed. A deconstruction of its exact flaws would definitely begin with calling it out as a style over substance situation. The film is a looker and a charmer, enough so that it doesn't necessarily matter that plot points aren't filled in or the unreliable narration is touch and go. The real joy here is simply watching the characters exist. From the first scene, when we're introduced to portly con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) as he artfully arranges his comb-over, we understand that this is a movie where the smarmy guys aren't just smarmy guys: they're likable, surprising people. It's Irving's partnership (and love affair) with scrappy survivor Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) that finds their mutual instinct for survival flourishing in an unending string of confidence schemes and petty crimes. They loan shark, they sell forged art, they network; all the while falling deeper in love though Irving's young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) waits at home looking after their young son and beating Irving at his own game. It's this weakness, perhaps, that allows FBI goon Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into the picture, and soon Irving and Sydney are all wrapped up in an over-the-top scheme with no positive outcome in sight.
The major players, for all their many moral faults and shortcomings, are never presented to the audience for our pity. The world of the film -- for all its color -- exists entirely in shades of murky grey. We learn to love the players and their game, to appreciate their quirks, to want to spend time with them, to enjoy the oddly sweet ways in which they go about a nasty, back-stabbing business. This is why Russell succeeds, and why the movie is rapidly proving to be somewhat infectious. For all the necessary evils, for all the survivalist moves, the destruction, and sad truths, American Hustle keeps the darkness at bay. It's infectiously fun, the kinds of movie you want to see win awards even if it's not really the best options out there.