1. David O. Russell is a director who doesn't know what he's doing. I say this with legitimate, if cautious, admiration. Some of our most celebrated directors have been incorrigible perfectionist assholes: David Fincher makes actors do hundreds of takes; Kubrick sent crazy (but not wrong) letters to projectionists; Hitchcock threw live birds at Tippi Hedren. Russell is not like this. Russell is more interested in spontaneity than getting something exactly correct; life never turns out perfect, so his movies shouldn't either. In his best movies, this works. Flirting With Disaster, Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings and Silver Linings Playbook, high-wire acts that spinoff in loopy, exhilarating new directions you could never see coming, vibrate with life. But Russell has to be careful: In this exuberance comes costs, particularly those in the world of story and plot, which can require a tighter focus than Russell finds personally compelling. If you don't sweat the little details, you better make sure those details don't matter.
2. In American Hustle, the details matter, which is why the movie alternates between being compulsively entertaining and endlessly frustrating. The movie tells the story of the '70s Abscam scandal, a complicated, confusing FBI investigation that roped in fake Arab princes, the mob, Bob Guccione, a U.S. Senator and basically everyone who had ever been to Atlantic City. It's difficult to understand everything that happened involving Abscam—even the Wikipedia page is impenetrable—which, you know, is sort of a good reason to make a movie about it. But Russell doesn't have the patience to explain to you what's going on. He's the director I'd trust least on earth to make a procedural. Watching American Hustle is a kick, a propulsive ride with a rollicking '70s soundtrack that keeps everything moving. But nothing in this movie makes any sense. I'm not sure Russell much cares.
3. The movie has way too many major parts—its cast is seemingly taken directly from a hypothetical What Actors Are Hot On The Internet Right Now casting list (seriously, even Louis CK is in this movie)—and gives them all big loud scenes to play; Russell might lack the discipline of a Fincher, but it sure looks like a gas to be an actor in one of his movies. The central couple is Irving and Sydney (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), a couple of con artists who unwittingly find themselves caught up in a massive government investigation spurred by an overambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper). The investigation grows to include Irving's unstable wife (Jennifer Lawrence), an exhausted and overmatched FBI boss (Louis CK), a Latino man pretending to be Arab (Michael Pena), the mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner), and a notorious brutal mob henchman (played by a mob-movie veteran in a terrific surprise cameo). The movie pretends like there's a plot keeping all these people tied together, but it keeps wandering off, a dog distracted by a squirrel, into funny, sharp detours that still ultimately prove exhausting. There's so much going on, and there isn't a steady hand on the till. We just wander along with everybody.
4. The movie is obviously indebted to Martin Scorsese—it's an intoxicating mix of his '70s character studies and his high-energy crime films of the past decade-plus, along with Goodfellas, which it unashamedly apes at every turn—but Russell ignores how disciplined a director Scorsese is. The genius of Scorsese is that his films are kinetic and fevered while also never forgetting basic story structure. Scorsese moves like crazy, but he never misses a trick either. Russell gets moving so fast that he forgets where he was going in the first place; he giddily doesn't care. Scorsese whips you around but keeps you on track; Russell flings you off every cliff and then jumps in after you. It doesn't mean Russell isn't clearly skilled, or that the experience isn't an enjoyable one. But there's no consistency to anything happening; characters drop motivations, major plot points are cast aside (as an example, one you'll get after you see the film: why does Cooper seem to just forget that the mobster knows the "Sheik" doesn't speak Arabic?), whole story arcs are left along the side of the road as Russell whizzes happily by. He hopes to keep you dizzy enough that you don't much care. You might be.
5. Even if you're frustrated by Russell's madness and the creeping suspicion that the movie's head rush isn't actually going anywhere, there is much to engulf here. The movie looks fantastic, with charming little '70s details popping in and out of every frame. (I found myself occasionally admiring how meticulously period-appropriate the extras were; Russell at least sweats those details, even if I wondered why any mid-70s FBI boss would ever sport a goatee like Louis CK's.) The soundtrack is instantly, Pulp Fiction-iconic; you can expect to hear it in the background at house parties for years to come. (So much Steely Dan.) And the cast is uniformly terrific, particularly Bale and Adams, who keep grounding their characters in real places, trying to steer the hyperactive movie back to a quieter place. (Quick American Hustle Actor Power Rankings: Adams, Bale, Lawrence, Mystery Cameo, Cooper, CK, Alessandro Nivola, Renner, Pena.) The movie is an undeniable good time. But don't expect any of it to hold together. If you're like Russell, you won't mind. But it would drive Kubrick absolutely insane.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.