David O. Russell says American Hustle — his swift, overstuffed valentine to 1980s Martin Scorsese by way of 1970s Vidal Sassoon — completes a rapid-fire trilogy about American dreamers. That's one way to look at it.
From The Fighter (2010) through Silver Linings Playbook (2012) to this latest picture, you can indeed draw a thematic line or two through the writer-director's recent work. He has zeroed in on stubborn characters experiencing crises of identity and emotional turbulence, and he has generally rewarded them (and, not incidentally, the actors playing them).
None of the three films approaches perfection, suffering as each does from sometimes severe perforations in believability. Taken together, though, what they show is the surprising evolution of just one figure: Russell himself. His early movies mined broad, predictable jokes from a narrow range of discomforts, but he has suddenly become a universalist. His characters are conceived with a frustratingly studious eye for idiosyncrasy, yet they contain every strand of DNA an audience might recognize. And American Hustle, flaws and all, is ludicrously entertaining.
To dispense with the unavoidable: Marty, Marty, Marty. Zooms, Steadicam, nutso close-ups, crosscut voice-overs, a jukebox that plays fewer songs than you think it does — Russell knows Scorsese the way Brian De Palma knows Hitchcock. But even Russell's most obvious tricks manage to pay tribute rather than simply ape, and a more individual bravura is also at work. It both presents and aces its own test: As written — and Russell has written the shit out of this funny, menacing, sexy, generous screenplay — most of American Hustle looks like it couldn't have been filmed any other way than the director did it.
What Russell has filmed is a far-from-factual (history-scented, really) version of one con man's part in the FBI's Abscam sting operation, which started in the late 1970s. That would be, in this telling, Irving Rosenfeld, played with extra pounds and double relish by Christian Bale. There's a gonzo agent (Bradley Cooper, willing you to give up not liking him, winning), and there's the woman between them (Amy Adams, excellent). And there's also Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld's kittenish wife, stealing everything that isn't nailed down and most of what is.
Everybody tries on accents and wigs and disguises and high-top bouffants (for the men and the women). It's a caper movie, a nod to a very bygone genre that has, in more recent times, outsmarted itself (the Oceans sequels, Tony Gilroy's failed Clooney-Roberts team-up, Duplicity), and most of its characters tilt on an axis between two equally dumb choices. Corruption or honesty, this woman or that woman, positions of safety or risk. There's no movie — there's never a movie — without the assurance of poor decision making. That the decisions being made in American Hustle are not just poor but cataclysmic is the source of the movie's deep comedy, and also a rich vein of fascination.
Doing the right thing for most of these people is impossible — and then some of them do it anyway.