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David O. Russell is a great director of actors. Many filmmakers specialize in particular type of scene or visual style; Russell, on the other hand, knows how to wring a strong performance from an eager performer. We know this because actors from last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, both received Academy Awards for their work (Russell also famously berated Lily Tomlin during I <3 Huckabees, which suggests his demands are high). American Hustle, Russell’s latest, is an attempt to get great performances from a dark comedy about criminals. Some actors have goofy fun with compelling performances, yet Russell fails his cast with his meandering screenplay and direction that abandons a cohesive sense of tone or style.

Handsome Welshman Christian Bale stars as Irving, a fat bald Jewish con man in the late 1970s whose comb-over has a life of its own. In an early voiceover that shamelessly apes Goodfellas, Rosenfeld talks about his early life and how his father’s failed attempt at legitimate business informed his decision to become a criminal. At a party in Long Island, Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams), and they form a fast partnership that’s both professional and personal (it does not stop Irving that he’s married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence)). Sydney and Irving set up a low-stakes operation where they entice losers to hand over thousands of dollars with the promise of tripling it. This attracts the attention of Richie (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent who catches them red-handed. Richie forces Irving and Sydney to work for him: through an elaborate scam, they go up the food chain to catch public officials receiving bribes.

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Even during the war action film Three Kings, there’s always a lot of chatter in Russell’s work. Characters argue and find wonderfully bizarre ways to articulate what they’re feeling, yet there is always some kind of action in the foreground (e.g. boxing, dancing). American Hustle may have its share of cop and robbers, yet it’s a movie almost entirely defined by dialogue. In fact, the movie is so limited in action that, save the voiceover, it could conceivably work on stage. There are large sections where the characters tell what’s happening when the more cinematic strategy would be for Russell’s camera to show what’s happening. This creates an unintentional claustrophobic feeling: there is no sense of how these characters live, and instead there are endless vignettes where Russell shows off yet another idiosyncrasy or horrendous fashion choice.

While American Hustle is a messy whole, there are small character-driven moments where his talent for dialogue creeps through. It’s no surprise Jennifer Lawrence is the biggest scene-stealer: whereas the other actors carefully control their work, Bale in particular, Lawrence abandons precision in favor of brassy impulsiveness. There’s a hilarious scene where she tries to justify her abuse of a new microwave, and another where she finally suggests that she’s crazy like a fox, not just crazy. The other welcome standout is Louis CK, who plays Richie’s long-suffering boss Stoddard. Cooper brings a lot of the same energy from his role in Silver Linings Playbook, and CK’s passive sad sack routine is a perfect foil. More than anything else, I suspect audiences will find themselves discussing a running gag that involves a shaggy dog story Stoddard tries to tell Richie. There is a payoff to the story, sort of, and what it leaves out is kind of brilliant.

Earlier I mentioned Goodfellas, the Scorsese film that Russell desperately tries to emulate, and the similarities do not stop there. Russell, like Scorsese, uses period-era pop songs to establish tone, except his cues are obvious whereas they’re inspired in Goodfellas. Both films are fictionalized accounts of true crime, but American Hustle focuses on Abscam, wherein the FBI used a fake wealthy Arab prince to trick Congressmen into accepting bribes. Jeremy Renner co-stars a low-level politician, and he personifies the mob’s uneasy tension between corruption and trying to help the community. In a performance defined by joyless over-acting, Bale finds a modicum of humanity in his scenes with Renner, yet Russell can’t decide how to handle all this material. Unlike Scorsese, a craftsman who’s deliberate in every edit and shot, Russell seemingly opts for the saturation method (i.e. try everything and see what sticks). Sudden, queasy close-ups seemingly happen for no reason, and there are also long scenes that practically demand for an early cut. Through this style, Russell strives for a free-wheeling, loose approach that is meant to reflect the quick improvisations of his characters; instead, it’s as if he cannot decide what he wants.

Christmas time is the peak of the prestige movie season, so of course American Hustle shoehorns some gobbledygook about the American Dream. Bale’s character insists that everyone, no matter how honest or not, has to hustle a little bit, and the dialogue is written with enough stylistic flourishes to suggest Russell thinks he’s found some big insight. The ironic thing is that this rich material would reach bigger points about America by sticking to its genre roots. Most con man movies have a hero who is smarter than everyone else around him. The only reason we know Irving is smart is because he tells us, and when he finally does get around to tricking someone who’s near his equal, his ruse is not all that clever. Neither is American Hustle.

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