David O Russell’s comedy about a hare-brained scheme to expose corruption within the corridors of power opens with a con man tending to his “unnecessarily elaborate” comb-over.
The obese scoundrel stands in front of a mirror – belly protruding, man boobs succumbing to gravity – and meticulously glues fake mane to his bald pate then moulds what little hair he does have around the centre-piece.
Pleased with his work, the swindler struts into a neighbouring room, where an argument ensues and an enraged associate cruelly ruffles the coiffeur into disarray.
This protracted prologue encapsulates American Hustle: a self-indulgent, painfully funny and scattershot film that attempts to con us into believing it is smarter and funnier than the glossy and expensive mess it is.
Russell is blessed with a talented ensemble cast and individually, they deliver powerhouse performances that elicit howls of laughter or tug the heartstrings.
Unfortunately, putting all these misfit characters together in one film feels like the inmates have taken over the asylum while the writer-director casually strings together polished vignettes with scant regard for narrative clarity.
Like a Christmas bauble, the film is beautiful and sparkly, even dazzling at times, but also hollow.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a brilliant con man, trapped in a loveless marriage to a harridan wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), who makes it painfully clear that she will demand sole custody of their son if Irving divorces her.
So the hustler throws himself into his work, recruiting an inexperienced sidekick Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who poses as an English aristocrat in order to bleed funds from gullible businessmen.
Irving and Sydney are arrested by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who forces them to put their dubious talents to good use by entrapping New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and his underworld associates.
As Irving and Sydney lure Carmine into their web, an increasingly jealous and vengeful Rosalyn threatens to destroy the undercover operation as well as Irving’s burgeoning love for his assistant.
American Hustle does have moments of brilliance, and Sydney and Rosalyn’s big showdown brings out the best in Lawrence and Adams, both using verbal barbs rather
A mirrorball dancefloor seduction to the disco beat of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love is sweating and sensual, and Rosalyn’s destruction of an early microwave is a hoot.
But despite these undeniable pleasures, you cannot escape the pain of American Hustle’s frequent longueurs, overbloated running time and shambolic plot.
A hot mess? More like pleasantly lukewarm.