Attitude, energy, and bravado are qualities sorely lacking in much mainstream American cinema, or when they are present they are so often used to excess. Director David O. Russell finds himself at a transitional point with the new American Hustle. Russell's The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook, both made with plenty of the above qualities, have won Oscars and put Russell in the position of being able to make the films he wants to make with the actors that he wants to hire. So here we have American Hustle, a splashy period film that serves Russell's strengths but also succumbs to the director's need to remain in the same weight class. We open in 1978 on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale with a gut and a comb over), a small-time businessman who makes ends meet by peddling fake art and other low-level cons. The thematic concerns of American Hustle are revealed in this opening shot: life is a performance and what's behind the curtain usually isn't pretty. The problem here is that David O. Russell wants to light an entire movie with that superficial shine.
Things move quickly after Irving is introduced. Russell's script (written with Eric Warren Singer) uses voice-over to advance the story and get inside the characters' heads, and the narration and period soundtrack have prompted comparisons to Goodfellas. I hope Russell is flattered by the comparisons; he should be. Using the same narrative devices to tell a story doesn't mean one has made a comparable film. Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two are soon running a more ambitious con involving fake high-risk loans. When Sydney is arrested (in her persona as an Englishwoman named "Edith" with banking connections), she and Irving become pawns of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in his efforts to make high-profile bribery cases. The rest of American Hustle involves Irving and Sydney's attempts to free themselves from Richie's control while Irving ponders whether the group's attempts to nail a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) are justified. All this plot has the makings of either a crackling procedural drama or a good caper comedy, so it's surprising how little emotional weight the twists and turns of the story carry. What comes through most strongly is the performance of Amy Adams, whose character's desire to live free of cons and aliases is an anchor for both character and actress alike. This is the most showy role Adams has ever had but she resists the temptation to go over the top and gives a performance of real subtlety. Jennifer Lawrence is almost Adams' equal as Irving's wife Rosalyn, who gets most of the best laughs and is the one character in the film who knows exactly who she is.
It is supposed to matter a great deal that Renner's populist mayor and a series of anonymous Congressmen get nailed for taking bribes, but it isn't clear why or if any of them were even doing anything wrong before the events of American Hustle unfolded. Russell is lazy about procedure; I'm certain that no one like Cooper's Agent DiMaso has ever existed on earth or if he did he certainly didn't carry a gun and badge. A major plot point involves DiMaso persuading his boss (Louis CK) to use a Plaza Hotel suite for a sting, but the movie spends no time on the consequences of DiMaso assaulting that same boss when he doesn't get what he wants at first. Also, the idea that Sydney could create a fake identity that fools the FBI for half the movie (DiMaso thinks she's Edith for far too long) seems a stretch. When Robert DeNiro shows up as a Mafia boss who must be dealt with for DiMaso's sting (a fake casino financed by a sheik) to work, the movie slows down for a moment as events acquire some weight. The effect is like going from a sitcom to Shakespeare; it's a turning point both in the story and in our understanding of how little what we've seen up to this point has mattered. A sense of trying too hard pervades American Hustle, and though the movie does contain pleasures it also suffers from wanting to be something great and merely being something pretty.