There was a moment five years ago where it seemed like David O. Russell was going to become a footnote in the annals of American indie cinema history, with production halted on his political satire Nailed (a film unlikely to see the light of day, unfortunately) amidst tumult for both the cast and crew. After explosive encounters with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin on the sets of his two greatest achievements (Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, which remain his best work) his reputation as a volatile personality on set seemed appeared to put him in director's jail. But a funny thing happened in the aftermath of his lost film: David O. Russell joined the mainstream. Between The Fighter, last year's Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (opening wide today) Russell's proven himself an Oscar mainstay, crafting mainstream entertainments that still contain trace elements of his earlier, more esoteric work (as well as his commitment to quality performances) while aiming for a bigger audience. Unfortunately, American Hustle's fictionalization of the government's ABSCAM operations of the late ’70s plays something like Scorcese-lite – with all of the period-specific music and camera movement that entails but none of the narrative momentum. The end result plays something like Goodfellas as retold by the manic leads of his Silver Linings Playbook, a harried frenzy of a movie that leaves the audience untethered and in search of a reason to stay involved.
And it's really too bad that the film comes down so resoundingly on the side of style over substance, given that the performances throughout the cast are almost uniformly excellent. Russell continues to get career-best work from Bradley Cooper, harnessing his charisma and comedy chops in a way that really hasn't come through on the big screen before. However, even he's no match for the Oscar-worthy work provided by Amy Adams. As a con-woman desperately searching for something real and tangible to hold onto throughout the film's numerous duplicities, she delivers career-best work, tearing into this character with a ferocity and vulnerability that explodes off the screen. (I'd consider her an audience surrogate, but as her ever-changing accent shows throughout, she's pretty far gone too.) Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner also do fine work, attempting to provide something of a moral compass to an otherwise decadent work with appreciable results. Surprisingly, Jennifer Lawrence proves to be the odd woman out in this cast, delivering a shrill performance that feels like caricature in comparison to the well-rounded work of everyone she's playing against. In particular, a lip-synced sequence set at her home does her no favors at all.
It's unfortunate that the movie itself isn't up to the task of matching its stellar cast, instead spiraling further and further into a tailspin without ever taking the time to course-correct. The whole enterprise comes off as lost in the edit, aiming for something breezy and kinetic and instead lurching along in fits and starts, never settling into an appropriate pace. Generally speaking, a con movie generally needs somebody for the audience to hold onto as ballast in the storm of double-and-triple-crosses that takes place, but no such concessions are made here and we're never really given a particular thread of this sprawling tale to follow through to its conclusion. As the film came to its disappointingly tidy conclusion I couldn't help but wonder if we'll see the David O. Russell who made a philosophical screwball comedy and a morally conscious heist film ever again, or if we're destined to see him apply his considerable talents towards middle-of-the-road material for the rest of his career. While you don't need to strain to see the authorial voice asserting itself in this text (he proves ever-adept at staging high-wire sequences that bathe the audience in anxiety), there's something unfortunate about such a unique voice thrashing against the genre straight-jackets provided by an endless chain of prestige pictures.