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American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell
Produced by Charles Roven, Jonathan Gordon, Megan Ellison, and Richard Suckle
Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
With: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Anthony Zerbe, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm, Paul Herman, Colleen Camp, and Robert De Niro
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Editing: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, and Alan Baumgarten
Music: Danny Elfman
Runtime: 138 min
Release Date: 20 December 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

David O. Russell follows up his outstanding Silver Linings Playbook with a loose and satirical adaptation of Eric Warren Singer’s buzzed-about script “American Bullshit,” which concerns the true-life FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM. American Hustle follows the storytelling template of the Martin Scorsese / Nicholas Pileggi pictures Goodfellas and Casino, and includes many of those films' signature devices for guiding viewers through a multifaceted story: multiple narrators, period rock music, elaborate camera moves, and even titles that identify some of the people. But Russell is more interested in showcasing his colorful characters than spinning an engrossing yarn, and because he skimps on the particulars of the historical case, the 138 minutes film feels somewhat bloated and indulgent. 

Russell prefers tailoring roles to the specific actors he likes to work with, rather than letting a polished script dictate the casting. It's hard to fault this approach when the fun he and his stars clearly had making the film is so palpable and contagious. Christian Bale and Amy Adams (stars of The Fighter) are consistently entertaining as con artists recruited to work for an ambitious FBI agent, played by a slightly more restrained Bradley Cooper. Cooper’s Silver Linings co-star Jennifer Lawrence nearly walks away with the movie in a small but plum role as the manipulative wife of Bale's character, and the comedian Louis CK delivers an unexpected but welcome turn as Cooper’s harried supervisor. After a decade of watching Bale deliver one dark and brooding performance after another, it’s a pleasure to see him being so funny. The actor brings his usual level of commitment to this part: he gained a fair amount of weight for comic effect, and he's in full-on '70s drag, sporting outrageous outfits and an abominable comb-over. But while the disco-era wardrobe and production design are amusing, they're not very authentic. The comedy and period trappings are so exaggerated that one could easily confuse this Oscar-contender with the intentionally superficial comedy Anchorman 2 —released the same week.

The undeniable qualities of American Hustle don't totally make up for the fact that this caper movie gives short shrift to mechanics of the con its characters are pulling off, so there's insufficient cause for us to care much about what happens to them, endearingly flawed as they may be. Thus, in addition to Goodfellas and Casino, the film draws unfavorable comparisons to more recent movies that fictionalize true-life events from the 1970s, including Ben Affleck’s Argo, David Fincher's Zodiac, and, most especially, P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Unlike the directors of these great pictures, Russell doesn’t seem to realize that great performances, flashy style and idiosyncratic humor can coexist with tension, intrigue, and narrative complexity.