American Hustle doesn't say much
Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper. Rated 14A. Now playing
Style-conscious writer-director David O. Russell started small with Spanking the Monkey, went macro in the Gulf War–set Three Kings, and more recently, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook came across as indie-tinged bids for mainstream acceptance. In American Hustle he seems to be trying to out-Scorsese Scorsese. With its bloated length (138 minutes), garish period milieu, and emphasis on depth-free characters tripped up by their own greed, it bears more than passing resemblance to The Wolf of Wall Street, which manages to say even less in three hours.
If you could combine the best sequences from this pair of crime spoofs into a tight, two-hour package, that might be fun, and it’s not as crazy as it sounds; both Russell and Scorsese lately favour a kind of scene-by-scene strategy that privileges film-genre references over any desire to tell a story about actual people.
There’s a true-life basis for Hustle, however, with the FBI’s labyrinthine Abscam scheme, which caught U.S. congressmen taking bribes in the late 1970s, reduced to the harebrained efforts of one overly ambitious agent. Played by Bradley Cooper, agent Richie DiMaso latches onto small-timer Irv Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, who gained 40 pounds and lost his hair for the role). The frantic fed wants this polyester-clad con man and his clever girlfriend (Amy Adams), who exploits a fake English accent and a lot of cleavage for their elaborate cons, to lay a bigger trap for a rising politician (Jeremy Renner, sporting the movie’s second-worst hairpiece) subsequently offered “Arab” money to help rebuild Atlantic City.
Rosenfeld has a child and a surly, self-indulgent wife stashed out in the Jersey burbs; the latter is played by Jennifer Lawrence with the scene-stealing bravado of someone promised more screen time than her part actually merits. There are some amusing set pieces, with the expected disco-era music cues, but the antic filmmaking is dampened by its relentless self-regard, and the tale never builds to anything more than a loose collection of Greatest Hits, garnered from movies that never were.