There are things that made me gasp and marvel at David O. Russell's audacity in American Hustle. For he is tweaking Martin Scorsese here, the master of a genre that I don't know what to call. Crime drama, sure, but it's more specific: epic ensemble historical crime dramedy. Narrower still: that bursting with insanely engaging characters who are impossibly real and ridiculous, whose stories you don't ever want to end. It was a genre of one prior to now: Goodfellas, a rare perfect movie.
American Hustle is also perfect, even if nobody here is particularly likable. Christian Bale and Amy Adams' con team are criminals who prey on desperate people and get off on it. Jennifer Lawrence is Bale's manipulative, passive-aggressive wife. Bradley Cooper is an FBI agent with more balls than brains. But they're all utterly fascinating. The magnificent ensemble embodies them and their absurd quirks — almost all revolving around scary 1970s fashion and hair — with a gusto that is close to terrifying in the most deliciously entertaining way.
The script, a fictional story placed among a real FBI operation of the era, sets the characters upon one another to do some very precise damage to exposed weaknesses and anxieties. The first such moment comes mere minutes into the film, something so hilariously targeted by one vain man at another vain man's insecurities that it ripped a snort of deranged laughter from me.
Hustle did that to me a lot, in fact. Everything here is perfectly modulated for humor and pathos and acrimony simultaneously. Even though it's set in the '70s, the push-and-pull Russell sets up between the everyday scratching out of mere survival and the desire for life to be something grander feels very of-the-now.
Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his "genius" partner Sydney Prosser (a divine Adams) just want to get by, which is why they kept their cons small and under the radar. But when they accidentally try to con the wrong guy in undercover agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), he convinces them to work with him to pull off a series of stings in exchange for staying out of prison.
Rosenfeld's increasingly dismayed at DiMaso's ambition, which towers like a Jenga stack, leading them into bigger plots designed to bring down ever more powerful men, from mayors to mob kingpins and federal politicians. (For Rosenfeld, a prior good con would bring in five grand. His multiple invisible facepalms here as dollar amounts tick up outside his control are snort-inducing uproarious.) It gets intriguingly tricky, too, as Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, N.J., gets caught in DiMaso's snare. Polito wants to rebuild Atlantic City as a jobs-creating and economy-boosting measure, and just needs investors, which invariably will involve the mafia.
But is Polito a bad guy? Does he deserve to be the target of an FBI sting? Rosenfeld isn't so sure ...
"Some of this actually happened," we are informed as the film opens. The genius of Hustle is that it leads us to realize it's all kind of happening all the time, in a grimy spiritual sense.
"We're all conning ourselves," Rosenfeld informs us in one voiceover segment, while we're still scoffing at how ridiculous he is and how, of course, we couldn't possibly be like him. But the multiple layers of self-delusion at play among all the characters, and the events that carry them along in spite of their best intentions otherwise? That's something we can all see in ourselves, if we're honest.