I think ‘American Hustle’ is a very, very good movie. This could be because of or despite of the sense I had when watching it of watching a bunch of famous actors dressed up in outdated clothes and sporting (now) ridiculous hairstyles. For example, when watching Christian Bale I had less of a sense that I was watching the particular character he was playing (con artist Irving Rosenfeld if you’re interested) than that I was watching the actor Christian Bale dress up as a fat, balding guy with a terrible combover. Similarly for the movie’s other stars – Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner – their characters seemed primarily like roles that they had slipped on for a filmed, post-drama school improv session (and indeed, reportedly much of the dialogue was improvised). Except in contrast to a lot of ‘improv’ roles, these ones came with pages of character backstory, which we get into when Bale and Adams recount the story of how their characters met.
This sense of artificiality, of ‘putting on’ a part, was probably at least partly intentional. The film, after all, is about people pretending to be who they are not, and builds layer upon layer of fiction. Observe: we have Amy Adams playing a trashy American girl (Sydney Prosser), who is loosely based upon a real-life woman (Evelyn Knight), who is pretending to be English royalty (Lady Edith Greensly), with Sydney/Lady Edith in turn hiding the fact from the Mafiosi that she is working with the FBI. Postmodern film lecturers would be proud. Mostly though, these multiple levels of identity are probably not intended to keep scholars busy, but are just used for fun. You’re supposed to laugh (I think) at scenes like Bradley Cooper wearing an open chest shirt. And while the actors play their parts mostly straight-faced they seem like they’re well in on the joke. The result is, for my money, a movie that was a hell of a lot more fun than the reprise of Ron Burgundy.