Do the Hustle: Messy "American Hustle" snappy, well-acted, and just a lot of fun

American Hustle (2013)
129 min., rated R. 

"American Hustle" sets the bar high, as writer-director David O. Russell hooks back up with two pairs of actors he worked with previously in his last two films (2011's "The Fighter" and 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook"). Co-written with Eric Warren Singer, Russell's latest is a loosey-goosey account of the Abscam sting operation of the late '70s/early '80s. "Some of this actually happened," the opening title card reads, having no shame in telling us right off the bat that some of the facts might be fudged. (The title of the screenplay was originally called "American Bullshit," so it's just as well.) In fact, the Abscam story isn't told in the most involving of ways that it's up to the colorfully complex characters to provide the most interest. A tad overlong and so defiantly messy, the film is still playful and shrewdly formed, working best as a vibrant entertainment of a who's-scamming-who caper with a darkly funny screwball tone.

The film intriguingly opens mid-con in 1978 before backtracking, dropping us in with paunchy shyster Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who owns a chain of Long Island dry cleaning stores but really lives off of his phony art and fraudulent loans. He's married to the manic, manicure-obsessed loose cannon Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted her young son, but Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is his real soul mate after meeting her at a party. Coming a long way since being a stripper and landing a job at Cosmopolitan, Sydney becomes Irving's partner in crime and in love, reinventing herself and showing a talent for conning under the British socialite persona of Lady Edith Greensly. But when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) sees right through the two con artists, he wants their help to climb the corporate ladder by busting gregarious, crooked New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), congressmen, and a mobster. They enlist a fake Arab sheik (Michael Peña) to pull the wool over the targets' eyes and offer them money in return for political favors. The catalyst for the entire scheme coming off or going down in flames is one neither Irving, Sydney/Edith, or Richie suspects. 

A sterling ensemble strutting their stuff in groovy '70s clothing with '70s hairstyles is one of the prime surface pleasures of "American Hustle." Russell also cannily undergoes a high-wire act of sorta-kinda truth-based storytelling that juggles dual narrators and is performed with enough snap and verve resembling filmmaking mastery by the likes of Martin Scorsese. From the art direction to the Studio 54-ready costumes to the camera movements (many a dolly-in shots reminiscent of Scorsese) and blast-from-the-past music selectionsDuke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues," Wings' "Live and Let Die," Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," and ELO's "10358 Overture," just to name a fewthere's a giddiness in the details and a high level of craftsmanship that lends to the pitch-perfect recreation of an era. First and foremost, though, the film stands as a delicious showcase for actors to play ersatz dress-up and dig into volatile, contradictory and just-plain-cracked characters.

How do you depict a grey area in flawed, selfish people who spend their lives conning others for survival? Well, director Russell does all of his versatile actors right, starting with Bale, who, this time, puts the weight on and dons an elaborate comb-over as the balding, out-of-shape Irving. To level out the character's smooth-talking con side, the actor makes Irving strangely likable, also conveying his open-hearted devotion to Sydney and Rosalyn's son. Sporting a Jerry-curl perm, Cooper gets better and better; here as Richie, he's amusingly free of vanity and often infectiously overcaffeinated. More relaxed and less stoic than usual, Renner is sympathetic as the self-righteous, pompadour-wearing Carmine. While it's no one character's story, Adams and Lawrence come away stealing the movie from their male co-stars. At the top of her game (really), Adams has a brilliant handle on Sydney, putting on the sexy confidence in plunging-neckline dresses and a fake English accent when playing Edith. Sydney might be conning both Irving and Richie, but behind closed doors, we see what makes the precise but vulnerable Sydney tick, as she's able to adapt to any given situation and just does what she has to do to survive. By now, we know Lawrence can pretty much do anything. Here, she transcends what might have been the role of Ditzy Long Island Housewife, being given some scenery to chew to hilariously unhinged effect whilst showing fiery, interesting shades as the needy, shrill, tragic, wacky, passive-aggressive, flighty but not totally stupid Rosalyn. It's a showy, often over-the-top performance, but Lawrence wonderfully sells every one of her cracklingly written scenes, including a madcap moment with a "science oven" and her bathroom confrontation with Sydney, and the film is most alive and unpredictable when Rosalyn is on screen. While the previous five get all the glory, there are also watchable turns from Louis C.K., Elizabeth Röhm, Alessandro Nivola, and Colleen Camp, plus a surprising cameo that fits in nicely.

"American Hustle" seems to be only steps away from greatness in the league of "Goodfellas" and "Casino," but, despite positioning itself as a prestigious awards-season go-getter, it mostly comes out as a sprawling lark that keeps the plates spinning and shows off some juicy performances. Beneath the fun '70s kitsch is an efficient, albeit less hard-edged, character study of people desperate for power and control that lets everyone off pretty much scot-free. While the flash doesn't swamp characterization, the end result doesn't really have the emotional resonance or takeaway one might have hoped. Nevertheless, it's a snazzy party that gets away with hustling the viewer into having a good time with Russell and his troupe.

Grade: B +