American Hustle is set in the 1970s, and tells a vigorously fictionalised account of the ABSCAM sting set up by the FBI to target corrupt politicians in 1978, but its heart belongs to the 1960s. For despite its grittastic cinematography and the word "American" there in the title, both of them promising a neo-New Hollywood exercise in studying culture and people through a filter of grubby naturalism, the film's heart belongs to the '60s. In particular, to that decade's widespread subgenre of ensemble caper films, movies about cunning, well-spoken con artists pulling one over on each other and on us, wearing gorgeous clothes and acting generally like they're well aware that they're part of a script, but oh! isn't it such a wonderfully clever and nicely-constructed script at that? There is much of Topkapi in its DNA, I mean to say, far more than there is of The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell's last two low-key genre experiments, from which most of the new film's cast has been culled)
The plot gets mighty convoluted mighty fast, but it opens nice and slow, with a terrific character moment in which the paunchy, balding Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) delicately and with great focus and intent attaches an indescribably complex toupee/combover contraption to the top of his head, in one arch, detached long take. It is the first moment of many in which we'll see a character making deliberate choices about how he or she wants to be perceived by everyone else, for this will end up turning into one of the film's two overriding major themes: creating a facade as a survival strategy. The other theme is of how people can either do things that are safe and reliable, or they can have strong emotions, but not both, and this is introduced only minutes later, in the form of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose entry into Irving's life makes it far more exciting and passionate, and also triggers every subsequent action that shifts dozens of lives, nearly all of them for the worse.
Irving, you see, is a small-scale con artist who has figured out a perpetual scheme that won't ever make him fantastically rich, but keeps him and his dumb harpy of a New Jersey housewife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) stable and safe. Sydney adds a new wrinkle in the form of a fake English noblewoman who adds enough tatty legitimacy to the con that the dollar amounts start to increase, and after the two new colleagues fall in love, Irving finds himself willing to make stupid decisions to keep Sydney happy. One of these involves moving on an unsafe mark, who turns out to be FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), looking to make a name for himself in the Bureau. And this is where things start to get terrible: the low-stakes deal he cuts with Irving and Sydney gets him so excited that he almost immediately starts to concoct a new and bigger and much, much dumber plan that won't just take town a few nickel-and-dime con artists from New Jersey's streets, but will snag senators and mayors and mobsters of all sorts.
In essence, American Hustle is about enthusiasts getting in miles over their head and then trying to scramble back to the surface using nothing but ideas they can come up with on the fly. It's all pretty fizzy and even maybe shallow - the only character who's especially well-written is Irving, and the film's exploration of social mores begins and ends at "some people will do desperate things if they think that's the only way to survive". It is, though, massively pleasurable, in the way that watching committed performers throw themselves into the act of telling a snappy story with sparkle and energy. And just because the writing leaves most of the characters with more of the notion of an inner life than an actual personality and psychological core, that's not to say that the actors don't draw out quite a bit that ends up making this much more a story of three very specific figures than the "Irv and his two buddies" situation this could easily have devolved into.
Adams and Cooper give two fantastic performances altogether, in fact. Absolutely the best of Cooper's career, and the best in the film as well, a wide-eyed mixture of utmost childlike joy and a deeply nasty conviction that he's way smarter than everyone around him even when that's demonstrably the opposite of true. It's the best kind of movie star performance: when he's onscreen, there's no point in looking at anyone else. Adams, with a comically ludicrous English accent for most of film, is doing something a little bit simpler but even further outside of her comfort zone and no less arresting. And certainly, given her far greater centrality (she shares voiceover duties with Bale early on, when the film is in a mode of ironic nostalgia - Cooper has a little bit of narration, but not remotely as much), the film's success rests more on her giving it a steady foundation. On the reading that everything Irving or Richie do is ultimately about impressing Sydney (this is not a hard reading to mount), Adams is, in fact, the central focus point of the movie, and she's exactly charming and steely in exactly the right mixture to make that work. That Bale, doing another of his outrageously showy physical transformation deals, recedes so far into the background comparatively is perhaps testament to the character's function in the story as the One Sane Man who can't do a thing to stop the rest of the zanies from going overboard.
And that, right there, is the big surprise about the film, to me at least. American Hustle, a con movie about politics, a grittily-shot movie about American capitalism in its 1970s period of decline, a bitter love story about how people make terrible decisions that hurt everybody when they're too invested in romance, is above all else an outright farce, in a surprisingly classic sense of that word: problems are caused because people lie, they lie even harder to solve those problems, which only exacerbates them, and soon the victory condition is not "we got what we wanted", but "we figured out how to keep things from getting geometrically worse every time somebody breathes".
It's hilarious as all hell, nominally a thriller, but much too much in love with its dialogue and its absurd wrinkles and the gleeful fun of piling on complications to really bother with serious ramifications or anything like that. It is a miraculously well-made truffle, anchored by some of the best performances and most ballsy story writing of 2013. It's not particularly arresting cinema: Russell and DP Linus Sandgren do not a single interesting thing with the camera, and the most present artistic choice consists of a soundtrack so hilariously overreliant on the most obvious possible '70s rock music that I'm half-certain it's a deliberate parody. Also, like basically every movie of the 2010s, it's about 30 minutes too long. But whatever great artistic heights it doesn't reach, it's deliriously entertaining and sexy, two adjectives that describe some of the most outstanding shallow thrills that any human has ever enjoyed.