‘American Hustle’: Smooth, stylish and utterly scatterbrained

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‘American Hustle’: Smooth, stylish and utterly scatterbrained

By Shawn Cooke / Staff Writer

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“American Hustle”

Directed by: David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams

Grade: C

About a third of the way into “American Hustle,” FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) visits con artist Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) in her cramped jail cell, fit for an asylum. In an attempt to woo her professional talents and condemn her partner-in-crime and lover, Irving Rosenfeld (a nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale), DiMaso tells her, “all the razzle-dazzle he does — that’s not real, it’s fake.”

While his barb was directed at Bale’s character, it could just as easily describe director David Russell’s tendency for indulgence over coherent plotting.  

“American Hustle” begins at its most fun, detailing Rosenfeld and Prosser’s illicit exploits and clever cons. After scamming countless clients into empty British investments, the two con artists are thwarted by DiMaso and coerced into applying their keen criminal intuition to catching even more crooked characters. It all becomes centered on the Abscam scandal — a public corruption sting operation run by the FBI in the ’70s and ’80s — for a gleefully fictitious account of how the FBI employed a fake sheik to expose a handful of corrupt Congress members.  

Fresh off consecutive critical and commercial smashes (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), Russell manages to out-Scorsese Martin Scorsese here, with an extreme reliance on zooms, whip pans and an authentic period soundtrack for when mere dialogue isn’t cool enough. Unfortunately, it all becomes a bit tiresome and messy over the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, as he leans on superficial distractions to compensate for a plot line that pulls viewers every which way.

In rounding up most all of his frequent Hollywood collaborators, “American Hustle” feels like an elaborate dress-up party for Russell and friends. The hair! The costumes! The ’70s microwaves! Our attention is being wrongly pushed and pulled away from the particulars of Abscam. Russell clearly has several interesting stories to tell — he just can’t figure out which one’s worth telling.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about “American Hustle” is that for the first 20 minutes, it’s an engaging and tonally-assured film. When left to Bale, Adams and their revealing shared narration of the film, “American Hustle” scratches the surface of what makes these potentially interesting characters tick. Unfortunately, once Russell introduces more characters and the central storyline, he loses much of the movie’s focus — and heart.

Jennifer Lawrence shows up as Rosenfeld’s wife, who serves as more of a painstakingly overplayed plot device than a character of any genuine depth. Her outrageous antics serve no purpose other than to make her husband’s life a living hell, and often yield some unnecessary and humorless scenes (like her deranged housecleaning to “Live and Let Die”). Robert De Niro pops up for a brief scene as the head mob target — an appearance that feels like he just happened to be visiting the set that day. Louis C.K. is also poorly utilized as DiMaso’s straight-man of a boss.

From the flashy outfits and hair to the glitzy marquee talent, “American Hustle” is a vanity project through and through. Much like Rosenfeld’s extended preparation of his hairpiece to open the film, Russell devotes far too much effort to making sure everything looks pristine. If only he and co-writer Eric Singer had taken that same approach with the script.

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