David O. Russell’s effervescent caper has a crackerjack cast, but is slightly less than the sum of its gleaming parts.

I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favor over money. Effin’ Jesus said that as well.

–Irving Rosenfeld

American Hustle opens with its only scene that unfolds in silence, an almost real-time look-in on Christian Bale’s schlubby con man painstakingly applying his hilariously awful toupee and combover. As Irving Rosenfeld, magnate of glass/dry cleaning/forged art/financial “loans” to desperate men, Bale’s image is made complete not just by his terrible hair, but his protruding gut, jewelry, high collars, and even his walk. Writer-director David O. Russell’s film is full of characters who base their entire livelihoods on pretending to be other people. The more layers you’ve built around your identity, the greater chance you have to survive.

Throughout its run time, Russell strips away notions like “truth” and “reality” until all we’re left with are these players, equally deserving of ruin but sympathetic in spite of it: Irving, his partner Sydney (Amy Adams), who wears deep-cut dresses and a dodgy English accent to help Irv rope in the suckers; Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a fast-rising FBI agent who traps the hustlers into helping him smoke out political corruption; and Irving’s fearless, tempestuous wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Through the unfolding of the “Abscam” operation — loosely based on a real scandal of the 1970s — the four cross paths with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the young and idealistic mayor of Camden, who will blur legal and ethical lines to re-open Atlantic City and bring money and jobs to the citizens of New Jersey.

Russell keeps the tone light and breezy, with numerous sight gags and laugh-out-loud dialog. The cast, uniformly brilliant, is doing some of their best work. Cooper in particular seems almost possessed here, brow-beating his forlorn supervisor (a pitch-perfect Louis C.K.) into giving him more and more money and resources as the operation expands. DiMaso is at first just planning to go after white-collar crime, but is quickly in way over his head as the money trail — starting from an Arabian “Sheik” they invent — leads to Mayor Polito, then U.S. congressmen, then the mafia. Irving and Sydney struggle to keep themselves together (and Sydney struggles with her growing feelings for DiMaso–but who’s playing who?) as the high-wire act turns more and more dangerous. And Rosalyn, played by Lawrence as a brassy firecracker — the funniest moments of the film belong to her — has her thumb on the button that could bring down the whole scheme.

Stylistically, it’s different from anything else in Russell’s filmography. Tics and tricks are borrowed liberally from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and others: dueling narration, parallel flashbacks, period pop music, highly fluid camerawork. But the pacing is a real issue: the film is too long (by about 20 minutes), it takes too long to get to the main plot, and when it does it skips along so weightlessly the few truly dramatic moments don’t really land. And because we quickly learn not to take anything these con artists say seriously, the script holds us at arm’s length instead of getting us invested in their relationships. It wants us to be on everyone’s side, but that means we’re not really on anyone’s side.

The emotional spine of the film isn’t the “love” between Irving and Sydney, but the friendship between Irving and Polito. That’s when the film is at its best: as Irv leads the mayor deeper into the trap — a trap of a magnitude Irving has never been a part of before — he feels worse and worse, popping heart pills like tic-tacs, trying desperately to keep all the plates spinning. DiMaso’s breathing down his neck, Sydney is mad at him, Rosalyn is nuts, and it starts to feel like Polito is his only friend in the world…as long as Irving keeps the ruse going. THAT’S real conflict, and it makes the different personal issues of the others feel even less important. And again, because these are all liars, we’re never quite sure what even is important. The characters become toys for the actors to play with, not three-dimensional people.

On the whole, it’s not quite as fun as the trailers made it out to be — and while it’s broader in scope and ambition than last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, it’s not nearly as focused. It tries to be both “big” and “small,” but ends up a little messy and shapeless. It’s still entertaining, and worth seeing for the performances alone, but not a knockout.

Grade: B

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