Why ‘American Hustle’ Is Much More Than Just Scorsese-Lite

If there was a more influential American motion picture in the last 25 years than Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, I can’t think of it. Scorsese’s 1990 organized crime epic was a razzle-dazzle stew of black comedy, gangster cool, hyper-linked narrative, and stunningly confident technique, reestablishing its director as a moviemaking god and leaving film geeks agog. You can see its fingerprints all over Boogie Nights, The Sopranos, Donnie Brasco, Pulp Fiction, and all of that film’s imitators (not to mention much of Scorsese’s subsequent filmography, particularly Casino and The Departed). And it seems like every review, positive or negative, of American Hustle has drawn a not-exactly-recondite line from Scorsese to director David O. Russell, who wears the master’s influence on his sleeve: it is, after all, a two-plus-hour fact-based ‘70s crime picture, filled with insane period costumes and hair, battling voice-overs, gliding camera-work, a button-pushing pop music score, and even a Robert De Niro cameo. Nobody’s cracking any code by pinpointing the Scorsese influence, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to see how easy it is to make an imitation Scorsese movie. What matters is if the good ones (and I’d include Hustle in that group) go beyond the influence.

In true Scorsese style, Russell parachutes us into a story already in progress. It’s April, 1978, and a sting is in progress at the Plaza Hotel. But before it can begin, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) must do his hair, an elaborately constructed, Donald Trumpian fusion of toupee, comb-over, hairspray, and nerve. The camera’s patient observation — bearing witness, really — of this ritual seems a peculiar way to begin this elaborate story, but it makes sense on reflection, because it’s setting up one of the picture’s key themes. More on that later.

Rosenfeld is in business with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a career woman looking for a shortcut. She finds it in his scheme to defraud would-be loan recipients; she adopts a new identity and an English accent, with which she makes vague pronouncements about her London banking contacts, and they can’t collect the “fee” checks quick enough. But one of them comes from the hand of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent, who offers the pair a deal: help him bust four more con artists like him, and they walk away.

It gets bigger than that — much bigger. The twisty narrative, wherein Richie and his two “employees” end up at the intersection of Jersey politics, the U.S. Senate, and the mob, is based on the ABSCAM scandal, though fictionalized (“Some of this actually happened,” snickers the opening title card). It provides enough turns, double-crosses, and close shaves to satisfy true crime fans, but what Russell and his collaborators are really interested in is the psychology of con artistry, and that’s a rich subject indeed.

“People believe what they want to believe,” Rosenfeld tells DiMaso. “That’s the way the world works.” He’s talking about art forgeries, but that notion is what the whole movie is about — how these people are working each other, and where each deception ends and begins. Irving is madly in love with Sydney, but he’s married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and has adopted her son. Irving has had it with Rosalyn, but he loves the kid, and she can always lure him into sticking around. Sydney loves Irving back, but is tired of waiting for him to summon up the stones to leave Rosalyn, and she sees Richie as an easy mark, assessing the situation and realizing that his affection may be necessary as a back-up. And thus is established the picture’s ever-shifting hyper-sexual power play, in which the lies its characters are telling each other, and themselves, collide (sometimes comically, sometimes erotically, sometimes sadly) with good old-fashioned jealousy.

Early on, Sydney says of Irving, “He was who he was. He didn’t care.” But she’s talking about a married con artist who, at the very least, cares that people think he has a full head of hair. Later, Sydney and Richie go to a disco, get coked out of their minds, and run to a bathroom stall to fuck. But they don’t — she insists that they wait until they can’t wait any more, until they’ve been totally honest and open. “NO MORE FAKE SHIT,” she screams, over the noise of the room, but also as a proclamation, and she repeats it, over and over again, like a mantra. (And then she sits on the toilet and howls like a banshee. I feel like I can’t properly convey how utterly perfect, how raw and desperate and terrific, Adams is, particularly in the later scenes when she’s just barely hanging on.)

Yet even after they’ve made that promise to eliminate the fake shit, she keeps using her pseudonym with him, and her false British accent. The question of who’s playing who and how is par for the course in con movies, from The Sting to The Spanish Prisoner to The Brothers Bloom. The more interesting question is why, and that question is the motor that fuels American Hustle.

It is also, and this is not inconsiderable, a crackling good time. Goodfellas and its ilk are often best remembered for their set pieces, the centerpiece sequences where the narrative, jazzy cinematography, and pulsing music smash together and leave the viewer spinning. The “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence in Goodfellas, frantically, kinetically conveying Henry Hill’s last, coke-fueled day of freedom with smash cuts, jittery camerawork, and jagged needle drops from eight different songs; the “New Year’s Eve, 1979” scene in Boogie Nights, juxtaposing the end of a decade, a shifting movie business, the heartbreak of a crushing lonelyheart, and a double murder/suicide; Mia’s Urge Overkill-accompanied overdose and subsequent needle to the heart and rise from the dead in Pulp Fiction. Russell constructs several scenes worthy of inclusion in that company: the trio walking through the Plaza Hotel to meet their mark during the opening credits, the way the “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” cue chases the slo-mo and smoke as all of the characters assemble for the first time, Lawrence’s Rosalyn sloppily cleaning house and triumphantly singing “Live and Let Die” as her savvy squealing bears fruit.

Lesser films in the Scorsese mold, like 54, American Gangster, and Dead Presidents, get hung up on the costumes, the hair, the drugs, the mood. They too often confuse painstakingly replicating an era with telling a compelling story about one, dazzling us with the camerawork and music without ever actually engaging an audience on their own terms. But a movie as smart as American Hustle knows that those tactile pleasures only matter if they’re attached to some kind of emotional resonance.