American Hustle Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper. Directed by David O. Russell. Rated R. Opens Friday.
American Hustle opens with a sequence in which con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) painstakingly affixes a toupee to his horrific comb-over. It’s an act meant to symbolize the extent to which the film’s characters attempt to get others to swallow brazen lies, but it can also be read as an unintentional confession on the part of writer-director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), who here applies a thin layer of Martin Scorsese to his usual anarchic mayhem. From the multiple-voiceover exposition to the relentlessly mobile camerawork (frequently booming from across the room into a tight close-up) to the needle-drop soundtrack that plays like a ’70s greatest-hits collection, American Hustle feels remarkably secondhand, though one could do worse than to mimic one of the very best in the business.
Inspired by the FBI’s Abscam operation, which caught numerous U.S. congressmen accepting bribes from a phony Arab sheik, the film creates an uneasy alliance among Irving, the bizarrely charismatic mastermind; his girlfriend, Sydney (Amy Adams), who poses as an English aristocrat to lend credence to their swindles; and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), with whom they agree to collaborate on Abscam in order to keep Sydney out of jail. Complicating matters considerably is the ongoing presence of Irving’s wife, a brassy troublemaker named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and Irving’s affection for a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) he’s helping to bust. So thick and heavy are the cons here that when Sydney, in character as Lady Edith, makes a play for Richie, it’s not at all clear whether she’s doing so as part of an elaborate double-cross (as she tells Irving) or whether Irving’s loyalties to others have inspired a plain-sight betrayal.
All five of American Hustle’s main actors—Bale, Adams, Cooper, Lawrence, Renner—are having the times of their lives, and their collective vitality ensures that the movie is never dull. What Scorsese has that Russell sorely lacks, however, is a propulsive sense of rhythm. Even when individual scenes in Hustle are entertaining, there’s no flow pulling you from one to another; every few minutes, it’s as if someone has just hit the reset button, and the stop-start jerkiness becomes exhausting. Irving and Sydney’s relationship, founded on a mutual sense of trust between two untrustworthy people, should be Hustle’s palpitating heart, but their offbeat duel keeps getting buried in extraneous Abscam details and irrelevant (if amusing) running gags. Russell clearly believes he needs to think bigger now that he’s made the A-list. We don’t need Marty Jr., though. We need him.