**1/2 (out of four)
In early December, the New York Film Critics Circle awarded director/co-writer David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” Best Picture and Best Screenplay. That’s pushing it. Lacking the confidence of Russell’s recent Oscar nominees (the great “Silver Linings Playbook,” the good “The Fighter”), the film often feels stuck between aping Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”). It’s rarely as playful or funny or loose or hip as it hopes.
There should be no complaints to the NYFCC, however, for awarding Best Supporting Actress to Jennifer Lawrence. A year after winning the Oscar for Best Actress in “Silver Linings,” she sneaks along the fringes of “Hustle” until eventually pulling off the kind of brilliant thievery the characters can only dream of. Opening by noting, “Some of this actually happened,” the film continually reminds us, often through various characters in lazily conceived voiceover, that life is but a con game, and everyone has an angle.
Looking like the polar opposite of his Oscar-winning role in “The Fighter,” Christian Bale plays Irving, a conscience-free swindler who’s a plump advocate of the comb-over. When he and his girlfriend, Sydney (Amy Adams), who poses as an English banking whiz named Edith, get pinched by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the pair has no choice but to assist the Feds in exposing corrupt officials (including Jeremy Renner as a New Jersey mayor) or face time themselves.
Actually, they do have a choice, but Irving won’t flee the country--he loves the son he adopted after marrying Rosalyn (Lawrence), a live wire of hair and cleavage who her husband dubs “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”
Set in the late ‘70s, the secondhand-feeling, overlong “American Hustle” is all dull ties and low necklines, but that’s hardly the reason the actresses outdo the actors here. Lawrence carefully adds dimension after dimension to a character that at first seems not to have any; Adams subtly reveals how much Sydney has given up to change her life and how worried she is about winding up with nothing.
A great cast isn’t everything, though. (Hello, “The Counselor”). And “Hustle,” a movie with so much talent and potential, falters with emotional currents that aren’t satisfyingly explored and oppressive voiceover that clashes with the onscreen effort at jazzy, crackling entertainment. Hey, Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”), you want a shot at this?
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