Judging whether a movie is “good” or not is a tricky thing to do considering all the possible reflections of its wide and varied potential audiences. In the case of American Hustle, however, the “good” judgment seems to be the most sensible one to make. At the very least, it is pretty much perfectly made—it would probably take actual work to come up with something less, given the complex and wild story, flawless script, and brilliant cast involved. The story mixes perfect amounts of suspense, tragedy, action, romance, and clever humor amid a near continual sense of climax, and pairs of actors whose magical dynamic we saw in previous successes like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, director of American Hustle, having directed both of these) plus bonus cameos from Robert De Niro and Louis CK. The script is one of those that will have you (if you are like me) writing down every other line in the dark because they may help you to explain some super salient point in an important conversation somewhere down the line, or just because they are beautiful points of fixation. Not to mention one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, each song perfectly chosen for the scene it presented.
We begin with a seedy looking Christian Bale with his horrible toupée in his swanky hotel room, mid-plot, everything unfamiliar. It’s tense and harsh and intriguing and confusing, and then soon enough we are back to the real beginning getting re-introduced. Beginning with the love story between Sidney and Irving (Amy Adams and Christian Bale) and their struggle to survive leading them to collaborate in a careful conning scheme, in some ways the film seems like your standard con story (or if not, maybe it has set the standard) or crime story, about desperate people sadly discovering that to work outside the law and avoid being brought down themselves, they’ll have to bring down everyone around them. The connection between Sydney and Irving makes sense and their choice to con professionally almost does too. In his intro monologue, Irving explains that he’d rather “be the one taking than the one getting taken, especially after how [he] saw [his] father got taken.” Sydney is a stripper, objectifying herself just to get by, and so it’s simple: they both decide to treat the world how they feel it’s treated them. Eventually we come full circle, witnessing the highly involved and higher-pressure outcome of their choices.
All of the characters, just as we would hope for in any gripping film, are three dimensional like ourselves. As Irving explains to federal agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) as the plot thickens, things are never black and white, but “extremely grey.” We hardly ever judge them, even as they get rotten and ugly, because we know their story and their struggle. As painful events unfold, so does each character’s nature, all equally fascinating as the transfixing narrative and remaining so until the film’s final moments.