Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun in American Hustle. The actors – almost all of whom have worked with David O. Russell in the past – have been given extravagant roles that stretch them in surprising ways, and Russell gives them all license to take these characters and run with them. The film is loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, although I got the sense while watching the picture that Russell's interest in this story is only intermittent. American Hustle exists as a meditation on role-playing, an affectionate homage to an era and – above all – a showcase for a group of actors whom the director clearly adores. That devotion to his cast enables Russell to yield some terrific moments, but to the detriment of his film's overall effect.
The actors all come in disguise. As Irving Rosenfeld, a low-rent confidence trickster who's happy to stay small-time, Christian Bale wears a carefully tended comb-over/toupee combination and a heavy gut. His girlfriend and partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who sometimes plays with a strained English accent and brings a teasing sexuality to her performance that we haven't seen before from this actress. Their banking scam brings them into contact with FBI man Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious agent with a dodgy perm who gets lost in the possibilities of the ever-expanding sting operation he masterminds. All of these characters are trying to change, to take on a new persona, and American Hustle keeps pushing them into different directions as its series of elaborate con-jobs plays out.
With twist-laden conman stories such as this, I often find that momentum is key. The narrative needs to lock the viewer in and keep us hooked with every plot turn; it needs to fit together like clockwork. Russell disregards that notion as he keeps digressing from the main scam to indulge in some bit of comic or dramatic business with his actors, which gives American Hustle a weird stop-start rhythm and a sense that nobody is sure quite what type of film it is meant to be. The level of detail in Bale and Adams' characterisation casts a harsh light on Jennifer Lawrence, who is badly miscast as Irving's neglected wife and can do nothing with a character so poorly conceived at a script level. Russell likes to pitch scenes at a manic screwball intensity but the pacing is off throughout – particularly in the desperately sluggish opening hour – and the film feels like it could easily lose at least twenty minutes of extraneous material.
Of course, American Hustle isn't really aspiring to be anything more than a fun time at the movies. The coy opening title card ("Some of this actually happened) and the outlandish '70s period detail should quickly clue you in to the fact that it's something of a romp. But my disappointment stemmed from the fact that I didn't have anywhere near as much fun as I felt I should be having – my enjoyment continually being disrupted by the film's choppy construction – and that I could see moments of unrealised potential here. Russell's style can generate real electricity but he too often appears happy to coast ahead with montages set to classic '70s tunes, lacking the discipline to stop his film from feeling bloated and allowing the plot tho drift away towards the end. There has been much talk of American Hustle being little more than a Martin Scorsese pastiche, but I don't see it that way at all. This is very much a David O. Russell film, and the only work that it feels like a pale imitation of is his own.