If awards were handed out for the sloppiest movies, “American Hustle” would be a dead ringer for such a booby prize. This damn thing is all over the place. It can’t decide if it wants to be a comedy, a period crime drama or a music video. Dueling voiceover narration — between Christian Bale and Amy Adams — finally ceases after an eternity, and the film segues into something resembling a movie only to flit away a in series of music sequence montages that make you pine for the glory days of MTV.
The good news is that the film’s acting ensemble is as committed as they can be. When those actors happen to include Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper, it’s sufficient cause to head out to the nearest cinema with the knowledge that you’re there for the performances but not the format. The players are great but the rules of the game don’t apply.
Conspicuously cribbing from Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” director/co-screenwriter David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) creates a hodgepodge caper movie (an exaggeratedly fictionalized account of a real-life ‘70s era sting operation involving the FBI) that falls apart so many times that there’s nothing left by the time the third act closes.
Anyone familiar with the term “Abscam” remembers the decades-old FBI political-corruption probe that used the obvious moniker as a phony business front to entrap nearly 20 political figures — including a U.S. senator, House Representatives, New Jersey state officials, Philadelphia City Council members, and a handful of attorneys.
Drycleaning and art-forgery businessman Irving Rosenfeld (played by a paunchy Bale) has one of the worst comb-overs you’ve ever seen. It takes him many minutes in front of a mirror to stick a patch of black toupee on his pate before carefully spraying down the hair he pulls across the top of his head at an unnatural angle. The unsightly disguise gives Irving the confidence he needs to go out in the world and rip off investors dumb enough to believe that the $5,000 they give him will be returned tenfold. There’s one born every minute.
Irving wastes no time charming the pants off Edith [not-her-real-name] (Adams), a redhead looker with a British accent who is just as devious as Irving. It takes awhile before Edith discovers that Irving is married to a tacky woman named Rosalyn (Lawrence), but by then the romantically-attracted Edith has already signed on to participate in Irving’s con games.
Irving calls his arms-length wife Rosalyn a “Picasso of passive aggression” for good reason. Jennifer Lawrence steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen — which is saying something considering the caliber of actors she shares it with. A couple of scenes in particular provide the movie with two of its high points — one involving a microwave oven, and another in which Rosalyn’s crocodile tears leave Irving, and the audience, speechless.
Irving’s and Lady Edith’s con games aren’t as polished as they imagine. An eventful run-in with undercover FBI agent Richie DiMasso (Cooper) leaves the felonious couple with an option of spending many years in the pokey, or participating in four sting operations that will wipe their record clean. Unfortunately for Irving and Edith, DiMasso doesn’t really know how to count to four.
For all of its awkward narrative tics, “American Hustle” is more than a little entertaining, but it comes no where near living up to the hype surrounding it. “Goodfellas” — “American Hustle” ain't.
Rated R. 129 mins. (B-) Three Stars - out of five/no halves)