I think the popular take, that American Hustle isn’t “about anything,” is very mistaken. This may come from the fact that I was around and cognizant when the AbScam scandal broke. My take on it then, after a day or two of following the news, was “What kind of bogus scandal is this? There aren’t enough actual crimes to pursue, the Feds need to tempt people into imaginary crimes?” (I remember asking, if the Feds enticed someone to do a hit, and the person fired at what turned out to be a dummy, was he guilty of murder?) I didn’t know then that the scheme involved using actual con artists (whatever other details were invented for the film, that basic fact is true), but it doesn’t contradict in any way how I felt about the scandal.
So, to my mind, Russell and company have taken the exact right approach with this material: told it as comic operetta, where everyone involved is some kind of self-promoter; where the clearest lawbreakers (DeNiro’s crowd) skate free; where the main casualties are tangential political figures who were totally entrapped (and, incidentally, probably sincere about promoting economic development -- in addition to of course their own personal enrichment); where people who barely lifted a finger (Louis CK & Alessandro Nivola) take the media credit; where those involved (as well as the audience) aren’t sure what side they’re on from moment to moment. This is a story where who the good guys and bad guys are very much depends on perspective, and is subject to change right up to the finish. How is this not a real subject for a movie? Does the fact that the film is played with such a jokey tone make people file it away as unserious, not look below that surface? I think that’s one of the film’s great virtues: that it takes the tropes of the con-man movie – the last-minute switcheroo-that-shifts-the-outcome, among others – and uses them to comment on societal absurdities. Putting this into a box with The Sting to me totally misses the point. The Sting was about clever twists, conning the audience, and nothing else (for those of us who figured out the main twist early on, it meant the film was essentially nothing). The twist at the end of American Hustle is a minor point in a story that’s about how people are conning one another and themselves.
I also don’t see why everyone’s so quick to label the film Scorsese-ian…unless one thinks Scorsese owns the 70s. I can’t think of any shots or series of shots that suggest Scorsese to me (a film like Boogie Nights seemed infinitely more Scorsese-influenced). The movie is, though, clearly steeped in the 70s, specifically late-70s, the disco period, where so many wore clothes that put their desires for sex and money right on the line (and were oblivious to how grotesque it made so many of them look). It may be that my having been around in that era makes me an easier mark for the movie – the soundtrack by itself brought back the entire time – but I thought the movie captured a lot of the ambience of the period in a more than surface way. The mid-film juxtaposition -- Bale’s dinner with Renner, and Adams’ disco date with Cooper -- for me captured the high-pitched, high-rolling delirium that was New York in that period, and in a way that I thought was Russell’s own. For me, this is his most assured work as a director.
And his actors all do him proud. Because Christian Bale was seemingly an add-on in the nomination discussion, I wasn’t expecting much from him, but I thought he anchored the film wonderfully. Bradley Cooper, I’ve stopped even thinking of him as “that Hangover guy” – he’s an actor now, far as I’m concerned, and a good one. His Sammy Glick-ish FBI agent is funny and pathetic simultaneously. And then there are the ladies: Amy Adams, whose eyes and manner convey her ravenousness for the finer things, and also her fear of losing what she has; and Jennifer Lawrence, who’s capable of wanting something different from moment to moment, and convincing the audience each one right then means the world to her. I think SAG got it exactly right this year: even if no individual actor rates a trophy, as an ensemble no other group comes close.
I’m not saying I think American Hustle is necessarily the year’s best film – I’d probably rate Nebraska, her and Inside Llewyn Davis higher. But Hustle might be, by a hair, my favorite of the three seen-to-be-contenders. I’m baffled by the hostility it’s generated in some quarters.