In American Hustle, there is no hero or villain. Rather, Director David O. Russell is doggedly fair; determined to prevent any one character from collapsing into caricature, Russell permits each to both seduce and revolt us. The result is simultaneously baffling and intriguing.
Professional con man Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, is a devoted father and subservient husband with an uncomfortably large conscience. Bradley Cooper is Richie DiMaso, a conniving FBI agent with a fear of mediocrity and anonymity. Amy Adams is Sydney Prosser, a sexy, dangerously credible con woman whose deepest desire is to simply “be real.” When Irving first meets Sydney, she is desperate to leave behind her past life as a stripper. Irving’s work as a con man appeals to Sydney as an opportunity for her to don an alternative identity. When DiMaso uncovers Sydney’s secret, she and Irving are forced to assist DiMaso in his grand plan to entrap multiple politicians and catch mobsters.
Under Russell’s direction, what could seem like inconsistencies in the characters come across instead as nuances, a feat that is impressive enough to redeem and even enchant the otherwise clunky plot of this Oscar favorite. Russell is also uninterested in simply drafting two opposing armies of characters. Instead, the primary conflict at hand is not between people but between two forces: change and stasis. Characters in American Hustle defend both—Irving’s wife Rosalyn at one point says, “I don’t like change. Sometimes I think I’ll die before I change,” while Sydney wishes to leave all remnants of her former life behind. From American Hustle’s very first scene, in which we are unfortunately privy to the elaborate process of styling Irving’s comb-over, characters either consciously or subconsciously resist change. But Russell tells us: don’t resist the American hustle; sit back and enjoy the ride.