American Hustle opens with a long, silent scene as Christian Bale, playing a medium-time conman named Irving Rosenfeld, gazes into a mirror while carefully arranging his toupee onto his weirdly bald head. The symbolism in the scene is obvious: Rosenfeld looks like an actor preparing to go on stage. As we soon find out, he has in fact been engaged by the FBI to play a part in the 1978 "Abscam" sting – a federal ploy to take down several corrupt New Jersey politicians – in order to keep himself and his mistress (Amy Adams) out of hot water.
There's a second layer of symbolism here, in that the characters in American Hustle are, in various ways, acting – or conning, if you will – in order to get what they want from who they want.
And there's even a third layer of symbolism, one perhaps not intended by David O. Russell or his cast: this film is also about movie stars acting with a capital A. For while Bale delivers another flawless performance, no amount of weight gain, dialect work, or hair shenanigans can make this handsome Welsh thespian believable as a homely middle-aged Jewish hustler from the Bronx. He just looks like he's playing dress-up.
I suspect that Russell, who famously sparred with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin in his earlier outings, was so relieved to finally find stars he enjoyed working with that he purposely packed American Hustle with cast members from his previous two features, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, whether or not they were right for the part. (I'm surprised Russell regular Mark Wahlberg didn't take the role that went to Jeremy Renner.) Yet while Bale, Adams, Renner, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence are all great, most (save Cooper and Adams, whose prominent cleavage deserves its own credit) are miscast, too young and too un-New Yorker-ish to convince. I could not forget that I was watching movie stars acting, not characters in conflict.
The film itself is ultimately a collection of well-performed scenes that don't string together cohesively. Character motivations and relationships don't flow believably from scene to scene; American Hustle isn't as good as the sum of its parts.
It's still fun, but the inevitable comparisons with Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino – the multiple voiceovers, the cheesy '70s milieu, the colorful characters – do not do American Hustle any favors. Russell is a good director. At times he can be a great one. But Scorsese is an audacious director, one who is madly in love with cinema and wants to do as much as he can with it. In contrast, American Hustle feels like an excuse for Russell to get some sassy performances out of his favorite stars. If that's enough for you, then you'll love the movie. But if you want something vital like Goodfellas, it won't measure up.