If ever a movie lived up to its title, it’s “American Hustle.” The film’s a con job on the part of director David O. Russell and his larcenous cast — a sloppy, miscast, hammed up, overlong, overloud story that still sends you out of the theater on a bouncy little cloud of rapture. Russell has taken Martin Scorsese’s mid-period filmmaking style, Preston Sturges’s love of characters who never shut up, and the casts of his last two movies (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), and he has mashed them all up into a glorious mess.
The movie, which was written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, is ostensibly a telling of the “Abscam” scandal, in which FBI agents used a fake Arab sheikh to bring down corrupt senators and other politicians on bribery charges in the late 1970s and early ’80s. But we know the mood will be playful from the opening credits — “Some of this actually happened” — and our first glimpse of star Christian Bale: an immense gut followed by a close examination of his character’s singularly awful toupee.
Bale is playing Irving Rosenfeld, a fictionalized version of the con man Melvin Weinberg, who helped mastermind the FBI sting. Irv’s a schlub, but he has confidence and style, and he has worked his way up from youthful grifts to a scam where he promises shady businessmen non-existent loans and disappears with the fee. (The film is set in Philadelphia and New Jersey but was shot in the Boston area.) One of the businessmen turns out to be a federal agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who gets Irv over a barrel: Help us entrap the big boys and you’ll avoid jail. Irv shrugs his shoulders and goes along with it. His British girlfriend, Lady Edith Greensly (Amy Adams), isn’t so sure.
In part, that’s because Edith is actually Sydney Prosser from Albuquerque, Irv’s girlfriend and partner in crime. It’s also because Sydney’s the one for whom faking it seems most necessarily real. “American Hustle” is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about reinvention — the hope that if you can make yourself over into somebody else, you (or they) will finally make it to the promised land.
No one here wants to be who they are, except, ironically, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the cheerfully corrupt mayor of Camden, N.J. For Sydney, however, being someone else is a matter of psychic survival. In a movie full of broadly comic performances, Adams delivers the only one that’s grounded in something chilly and hard to pin down; we sense the panic that serves as Sydney’s motor. Russell’s camera adores Adams — actually, it’s fair to say it drools over her — but it never solves the mystery of her character. In a movie as overgenerous as this one, Adams’s withholding feels like a gift.
By contrast, Jennifer Lawrence as Irv’s wife, Rosalyn — did we mention he already has a wife? — is all heart, all nerve, all yawping, socially inappropriate overkill. You know the emotions Lawrence suppresses in the “Hunger Games” movies? Here she smears them across the screen like fingerpaints. There’s a restaurant scene in “American Hustle” in which Irv has to deal with Rosalyn and Sydney and the feds and a front room of venal politicians and a back room of lethal mobsters, and Lawrence just takes the whole sequence and puts it in her pocket. There may be no more fearless young actress working today, or one so indulged by her dazzled director.
In other places, the movie feels awfully easy: schlocky ’70s pop chestnuts on the soundtrack, slo-mo walks down hotel hallways, the juggling of multiple narrators. All that sub-“GoodFellas” exuberance threatens to float off into mere silliness, and Cooper’s Richie, with his ridiculous perm and desperate overdrive, becomes the story’s biggest liability. Of the director’s three most recent films, this is easily the least, with scenes shot like rough first takes and dialogue that feels like the shouty bits from “The Fighter” and “The Silver Linings Playbook” laid end to end.
Quixotically, though, it’s also Russell’s most shabbily enjoyable. He keeps piling it on: Louis C.K. as Cooper’s FBI boss, the one note of sanity with a fishing anecdote he never gets to finish; Alessandro Nivola as his boss, a shark with predatory ambitions; Robert De Niro — a dangerous Robert De Niro for the first time in, what, three decades? — as the local mafia don, the only guy in the entire film who’s really real.
It’s a juggling act that Russell can’t sustain and doesn’t: The last 20 minutes feel aimless, and the movie doesn’t end so much as coast to a halt. And still you walk away giddy and full. “American Hustle” takes your money and makes you glad you were fleeced.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.