I don’t really know where to start with this strange and kind of brilliant film.
It’s a con film, but it’s a con comedy. Russell reveals the fates of characters well before he should have. If this were a serious movie, such decisions would be fatal. Because it is played for laughs, this trick diffuses tension in scenes that would otherwise be tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie.
There are multiple narrators, but we aren’t ever introduced to that concept properly – say through a device where someone is interviewing those narrators – and it’s just assumed that we’re watching sort of an “oral history” of Abscam that sometimes forgets its an oral history.
The editing is all wrong too; had David Mamet made this film we might have got one or two of the endless montages – though I really doubt it – but we wouldn’t get any of the inter-cutting – at least the inter-cutting that relieves tension – and we wouldn’t get the strange, jumbled pacing. (Seriously, the montages make me think Russell was watching the Ocean’s movies a little too much.) The editing reinforces the comedy and helps remind you, when the film gets a little too serious, that though this is a con film, it’s not primarily about the con.
Russell still cons us though; the reveal on Lawrence’s role is solid as is the final con. And so it sort of works as a con film despite how it constantly subverts the genre.
It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny the whole time – though there are many, many laugh-out-loud moments, but there are so many moments of sublime ridiculousness that even when you are not laughing you are usually thinking to yourself “That’s pretty funny right there.”
There is seemingly endless stunt casting, but the actors are so committed that you stop caring pretty quickly. (Despite the ceaseless wardrobe gags, everyone is committed to making you believe that they like their clothes and their hair etc.; that they live in it.) Practically everyone is great in this movie – save Jennifer Lawrence who, though hilarious at times, sometimes forgets she has an accent – but the standout is Amy Adams, who gives one of the best performances of the year, as someone almost permanently playing someone else.
It’s a farce that doubles as a parody of the con film. There are moments that are a little inexplicable – such as a particular kiss – and a few too many montages but overall the whole thing manages to be really funny and clever at the same time. I’m really kind of shocked at how good it is.