David O. Russell’s latest loads of meandering frustrating fun

American Hustle opens with the caveat that “most of this is true.” It’s a very loose version of the ABSCAM scandal in the late 1970s that saw a number of U.S. politicians arrested for corruption. The tag is a goofy cheat for director David O. Russell and company who are more concerned with characters endlessly riffing off each other than crafting a meticulous tale of graft and deceit.

The film has plenty of that too. Russell must have watched Boogie Nights and Goodfellas a zillion times — much of American Hustle ’s tone and style feels directly lifted from those films while maintaining Russell’s characteristically slack and playful style. Its success will depend largely on how absorbing or irritating you found his last flicks Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter .

The film opens with an overabundance of narration and detail. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a slick con man making money from phony forged art deals investment scams and a swath of dry-cleaning operations. (At least the latter seems legit.) At a pool party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) a witty magazine assistant with a taste for Duke Ellington records and fur coats.

The two quickly fall in love. They also join forces turning Rosenfeld’s investment scamming into a fully fledged operation. All is well until they get a visit from Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) a curly-haired FBI agent who catches them in the act. He offers them a deal — help him bust four crooks and he’ll let them go. He gets to learn the con artists’ secrets and they get out of jail.

Seems like a fair shake. That is until DiMaso gets a taste for catching bigger fish (politicians mobsters) and Sydney herself. Rosenfeld has to contend with his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who isn’t about to offer him an easy divorce and his burgeoning friendship with Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) unwittingly becoming ensnared in a bogus casino deal.

Unlike other period cloak-and-dagger flicks American Hustle isn’t heavy dangerous or depressing. There are a couple of Scorsese-inspired moments that suggest danger (and an unhappy ending) but Russell isn’t interested in making that film. It’s a wise decision. He and the cast are clearly having loads of fun yapping and playing adult dress-up and it’s fun to be invited to the party. Bale is the most distracting sporting a layer of thick stunt fat a gorilla-hairy chest a mealy-mouthed New Yawk accent and a woefully terrible comb-over. (Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder is a close corollary.) Adams drips ’70s confidence and sleaze and Lawrence is hilarious as a wicked wife who turns out to be a better con artist than her husband. Cooper does the best job (his character has the most to lose) overconfident and over his head. Even Louis C.K. shows up as a nebbish FBI paper pusher the source of DiMaso’s endless frustrations. There are the requisite ’70s touches like ugly unflattering beige clothes and disco clubs.

As fun as the film is it’s hard to recommend. Bale is too smarmy and self-conscious a chameleon act that misses its mark and the film largely hangs on his presence. It’s never clear what Russell is going for — is it about murky morality where lawmakers are willing to commit crime to stop crime? Manifest destiny at its most ugly and American? Whatever it is it feels like we’ve seen this done before and done better. American Hustle is distracting fun but Russell’s signature “let ’em speak and the movie will sort itself out” approach doesn’t quite work here. It has that I Heart Huckabees vibe — he isn’t sure why he’s here and the audience isn’t either. Who’s hustling who?