After The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell wielded more power than any up-and-coming director not named Ben Affleck. He could've made any movie he wanted. And he chose American Hustle, a slightly factual retelling of the FBI's Abscam operation that centers on Christian Bale as small-time con man Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as his mistress (and faux Brit) Sydney Prosser. After falling for each other at a Long Island party, they discover a shared talent in scamming honest folk looking for a loan. All is well, until it's revealed that Rosenfeld has a wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and the FBI is wise to their racket. Before long, they're working for the Feds on a series of wild deals that quickly grow out of control.
If that brief description sounded like a Martin Scorsese homage, then both myself and Russell did our jobs. The first hour is, at best, a love letter to Goodfellas. At worst, it's an unabashed ripoff, complete with descriptive voice-over and star-crossed lovers falling into a life of shared crime. It might be charming, if it weren't so distracting and derivative. Scorsese has inspired countless directors, many of whom have taken cinema in exciting new directions, but never have I felt so perturbed by one of his pupils at work.
But then, like a breath of fresh air, American Hustle evolves into a sort of screwball comedy. As the stakes get higher, the characters get wackier. Rosenfeld and Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito belt out a Tom Jones tune while Prosser gets overly sexy with Bradley Cooper's Richie DiMaso in a bathroom stall. Michael Peña pops up as a Hispanic agent portraying a sheik. Polito gives Rosenfeld a microwave, which he begins referring to as a "science oven." It's as if Russell realized how formulaic this crazy tale was turning out to be and added a quick dash of flavor wherever possible.
Just as soon as the magic starts, though, it stops. Everything returns to a dull roar in the buildup to a mild twist ending, Robert De Niro cameos in a mob subplot that doesn't bring much to the table (besides people in the theater whispering "ooh, look, it's Robert De Niro") and Russell decides to wrap everything up in an even neater package with a tired batch of "where are they now" narration. He even drops in a few irrelevant scenes of Rosenfeld taking "heart pills" from a small tin, as if to garner extra sympathy for a protagonist who never needed it in the first place.
This is all a shame, because nearly everyone in the film is terrific. Rosenfeld is no Henry Hill, but Bale's put-upon grifter -- falling ass-backwards into beautiful women while looking as unkempt as ever with a comb-over and a gut -- shares a certain everyman charm with Liotta's iconic character. They've found something they're good at, but they don't stand a chance against the other nutjobs who operate in the same field.
Meanwhile, Adams and Lawrence both shine as the ladies in Rosenfeld's orbit; it takes a brilliant actress to capture why such a beautiful girl would be broken enough to find solace and comfort in his unappealing arms, and they both prove more than up to the task. Cooper continues his "look, I'm a real actor" world tour with a smart, occasionally unhinged supporting role (complete with lush curly hair) and Renner proves to be the movie's unexpected heart as a reasonably well-intentioned New Jersey politician who gets caught up in the FBI's sting while attempting to renovate Atlantic City. There are four likely Academy Award nominations coming for this cast; in a perfect world, Renner would sneak in as number five.
In the end, however, all their fine work is wasted. As a real-life look at an unbelievable story, American Hustle is wildly upstaged by The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh's underrated 2009 farce. They're both over-the-top "comedies" but Soderbergh's tone was more consistent, his style more unique. He spun Mark Whitacre's misdeeds into a compelling narrative that made you laugh and kept you guessing without even realizing.
I'm not sure what Russell was going for. It felt like he took a half-baked script and filled in the gaps with a handful of stellar actors and actresses from his repertoire. They do their jobs; he doesn't do his.