‘American Hustle’ is stylish, flashy, but hollow

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★ 1/2

David O. Russell, the immensely talented writer-director behind last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and 2010’s “The Fighter,” shows he’s a marvelous storyteller again with “American Hustle.”

Russell’s genuine dialogue, vivid characters and ensemble scenes that sizzle and pop manifest themselves in “American Hustle.” The film also reunites the director with actors from “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” casting four of them in principal roles. A fifth Russell player shows up in a gem of a cameo.

Despite all the talent on the screen and behind it and a heady re-creation of the disco-dancing 1970s, the brisk “American Hustle” largely tries to succeed on style and flash. It’s less fun and less soulful than Russell’s earlier work. And the director and his actors are repeating themselves.

A con-artist tale set in 1978, the movie begins with a coy line: Some of this actually happened.

Russell and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer based the film on the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s. Abscam, an FBI sting operation organized around a phony company led by a bogus Arab sheik, led to the corruption convictions of six U.S. congressmen, one senator and the mayor of Camden, N.J. Russell weds the bones of the real story to a collection of richly fleshed-out fictionalized characters.

The FBI’s essential collaborator, conman Mel Weinberg, becomes Irving Rosenfeld, a hustler who operates a few scams and a legitimate dry-cleaning business.

Christian Bale, an Oscar winner for his portrayal of a fallen boxer in “The Fighter,” glides through the film as the slippery Rosenfeld. Bale reduced himself to a skeletal frame to play crackhead Dicky Eklund. He puts on pounds to play Rosenfeld. An early scene reveals the actor’s swollen paunch.

Rosenfeld is a career con artist but he’s far from the worst of men. He wants to leave his beautiful mess of a wife but stays because he loves his adopted son, little Danny. And after Rosenfeld agrees to go along with ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso’s ruse, he feels guilty about entrapping a mark he sees a friend.

Bradley Cooper co-stars as DiMaso, the rogue federal agent grasping for a better life. Cooper, giving an encore of the mental patient he played in “Silver Linings Playbook,” goes gonzo as DiMaso. This self-serving public servant has less real interest in justice than the big fish he wants to catch.

Jennifer Lawrence’s role as Rosenfeld’s off-the-hook wife, Rosalyn, has made her another of this year’s awards prospects. But like Cooper’s “American Hustle” performance, her work for the film is more “Silver Linings Playbook” déjà vu.

Amy Adams, a cast member in “The Fighter,” adds romance to the story as Sydney Prosser, aka Lady Edith Greenleigh, the con woman who’s both Rosenfeld’s partner in crime and soulmate.

Following great American movie conventions, “American Hustle” contains a love affair written in the stars, the conman who’s not such a villain, a lawman who is a villain and a killer who evolves into a respectable elderly businessman. Ain’t America grand?

Regardless of its lush and energetic execution, “American Hustle” sells sparkle and hustle. Unlike “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” it doesn’t earn lingering fond memories. It’s a cinematic magician’s con.