David O. Russell makes hyperkinetic movies about hyperkinetic people. “American Hustle,” his latest, is a lot more enjoyable and offbeat than “Silver Linings Playbook,” the most overrated movie of 2012. Still, I didn’t lose my mind over it. It’s a lot of sound and fury signifying not much.
The “American” in the film’s title is a clue that Russell, who also served as co-writer with Eric Singer, is reaching for something emblematic here. It’s a burlesque loosely based on the 1970s-era Abscam FBI sting operation that nabbed seven members of Congress for taking bribes. What Russell is saying is that the con is as American as apple pie – and isn’t that groovy?
He trots out his stock company: Christian Bale is the potbellied Irving Rosenfeld, who dabbles in dry cleaning, art forgery, and personal loan scams. The first shot in the film is him trying to glue on his unruly comb-over. (This is the year for weight loss and gain in the movies: Did Bale put on the weight that Matthew McConaughey took off for “Dallas Buyers Club”?)
Amy Adams is Sydney, an expert faker except for her not-so-expert fake British accent. She and Irving are made for each other even though he has a wife, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn, a harridan who uses her son, whom Irving has adopted, as a way to prevent him from granting a divorce. Irving characterizes her, not without cause, as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive.”
Bradley Cooper is Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent who busts Sydney and Irving and then uses them as bait to land bigger catches. One of them is Camden, N.J., mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whose construction plans for Atlantic City casinos inevitably bring on the Mafia.
It’s a kaleidoscopic carnival, structured from the viewpoint of each of its main protagonists. The film itself is devised a species of scam, and for a while it’s fun to be in on the con. Russell is, in effect, playing us.
But after a while, the narrative convolutions seemed more hectic than exhilarating. The film suffers from late-stage Scorsese-itis – wacky, low-slung, high-octane melodrama with lots of yelling and overacting. It’s also overlong. Russell tends to overdo even the good stuff. He keeps combing over the bare patches in the movie. Grade: B (Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.)