‘American Hustle’ is a hot mess 

Charismatic caper does it with style, not substance

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American Hustle
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

“If you have zest and enthusiasm, you attract zest and enthusiasm.” That pearl of wisdom from perennial positive thinker (and possible hustler himself) Norman Vincent Peale perhaps explains why American Hustle is so likeable and engaging despite its overly long running time, sloppy screenplay and rambling structure.

As a follow-up to arguably his best movie, Silver Linings Playbook, writer-director David O. Russell has fashioned a beautiful, cinematic junk heap and apparently conned the New York Film Critics Circle into thinking it’s a masterpiece. It’s not even close, but the film’s selection as the Circle’s best of the year at least reaffirms that life imitates art, as the film itself is one big, delicious con.

Based loosely on the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation in the 1970s, which targeted corrupt public officials, Hustle is the story of two con artists who are caught committing nickel-and-dime crimes and offered the chance to clear their names if they assist the FBI in some big-time hustles. Christian Bale, sporting a bulbous belly and scintillating ’70s fashion, plays Irving Rosenfeld, and you simply can’t take your eyes off him or his spectacular comb-over. Amy Adams is his mistress and pilfering partner, Jennifer Lawrence is his molten-hot mess of a wife, and Bradley Cooper is the embarrassingly enthusiastic FBI agent who manages to bust Bale and Adam’s characters at the beginning of the film but is hopelessly inept when organizing the larger sting. In attention-grabbing minor roles are Louis C.K. as an FBI agent and straight man to Cooper’s lunatic lawman, Jeremy Renner as the well-intentioned but shady mayor of Camden, N.J., and Robert De Niro as a powerful crime boss.

Lawrence may just snag an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, though her character could have been more fully developed – in her back story, definitely not her front – and her New Jersey dialect came and went and came again as quickly as Russell’s active camera. Not quite worthy of a nomination is Adams, who is jaw-droppingly seductive but also patently annoying with her badly botched British accent. Yes, we know the accent is supposed to be fake, but no one should buy for a second that the FBI doesn’t know that Adam’s character isn’t really English, or couldn’t at least have figured out that the dialect was flawed. Adams is instead more suited to an award for best unsupported actress, as her braless breasts dominate almost every scene she’s in, thanks to her cut-to-the-navel dresses.

Hustle, with its alternating flashes of brilliance and tedium, has all the energy and charisma of Boogie Nights but all the intelligence and finesse of Talladega Nights. Still, in the end, despite a twist that takes too long to arrive and makes only a small impact, Russell’s crime caper hustles us with its style, humor and musical mementoes, not to mention its cornucopia of twists, turns and tits.

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