“American Hustle” is a wannabe Martin Scorsese movie that could be left wallowing in the wake of an actual Scorsese movie — the superior “Wolf of Wall Street,” which opens Dec. 25. Director and co-writer David O. Russell hits some vintage Scorsese notes — the scheming lowlifes, the dreadful ’70s fashions — and then fully bares his intentions by bringing in Robert De Niro for a one-scene cameo as a scowling mobster, instantly triggering memories of “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”
Like those two Scorsese films, “American Hustle” has a true-crime root — in this case the late-’70s Abscam affair, an FBI sting operation that brought down seven corrupt U.S. congressmen. To organize that undertaking, the bureau employed a professional con man named Melvin Weinberg, here renamed Irving Rosenfeld and played by Christian Bale with all-out commitment. Bale’s Irving is a balding schlub with a billowing gut (the actor gained 43 pounds to play the role), a grotesque comb-over and a wardrobe of burgundy velvet suits, ill-advised ascots and gaudy neck chains and pinkie rings. Remember, the movie keeps reminding us, we’re in the ’70s!
Irving nominally operates a string of dry-cleaning shops around the outer boroughs of New York City. But his high-flying lifestyle is largely financed by loan sharking and a thriving trade in dubious artworks. He’s married to a honking bubblehead, named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), but has lately become infatuated with an ex-stripper, named Sydney (Amy Adams), who longs for a more adventurous life and decides to move in to Irving’s. Adopting an English accent to become “Lady Edith Greenley,” Sydney brings a helpful infusion of faux class to his various scams, and all goes well until they’re busted by manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie is intent on becoming a star G-man, and to that end, he’s devised a plan to surreptitiously record crooked politicos accepting proffered bribes. Richie offers Irving and Sydney immunity if they’ll help out, which they reluctantly agree to do.
Richie’s main target is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, N.J. Carmine is basically a good guy, and Irving likes him; the man sincerely wants to help boost his state’s economy by luring big money into the recently legalized Atlantic City casino industry. Despite reservations, Irving baits Carmine by calling in an Arab sheik with money to burn. (He’s actually a fake — a Mexican named Paco, played by Michael Pena.) Meanwhile, Richie has developed the hots for Sydney; she tells Irving she’s going to play along with the love-struck agent’s carnal fantasies, but Irving soon begins to wonder who’s actually being played. Then Rosalyn finds out about Sydney, starts eyeing a young mob hunk named Pete (Jack Huston) and … what a mess!
Russell has done memorable work with several of these actors before. Bale and Adams featured in his 2010 movie, “The Fighter,” and Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro starred in “Silver Linings Playbook.” They’re all good here, too. But the movie’s tone is muddled. Cooper and Lawrence are going for comedy. His overwound Richie is driven to fits of hyperventilating lust by the teasing Sydney; and Lawrence, who has yet to be bad in anything, brings a raucous vitality to the role of Rosalyn, a layabout wife largely occupied with doing her nails, working on her artificial tan and tormenting her hapless mate. (Summing her up in a wildly mangled metaphor, Irving calls Rosalyn “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”)
Bale and Renner are allowed to dig deeper into their characters, but that turns out to undermine the movie’s broad comic surface. Renner’s Carmine, with his ruffle-front shirts and towering pompadour, is a family man with a big heart; and Bale’s Irving grows increasingly conscience-stricken as he leads the cheery mayor toward his downfall. The director’s attempted blend of emotional introspection and screwball humor never quite coheres. (And it doesn’t help that Adams’ character never comes fully into focus. What is it that Sydney really wants?)
“American Hustle” already has been drenched with prerelease acclaim. (The New York Film Critics Circle last week named it the best picture of the year.) This does the movie no favors. Russell has gifts of his own, but his venture so deep into Scorsese territory was fated to fall short; he doesn’t have Scorsese’s mad comic energy. “Hustle” is a good solid film, very funny in parts, and it’s certainly worth seeing. That should be enough.