DAVID O. RUSSELL'S "American Hustle" is either a movie or a cast party for folks who starred in "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter."
Russell spins '70s tunes, and everybody parades around in goofy hair and loud clothes. Bradley Cooper has a perm, Jeremy Renner a pompadour, Christian Bale a comb-over and a toupee, which is something only Donald Trump could understand. Amy Adams has an array of see-through dresses and a British accent that comes off as quickly as her bra.
All of this artifice, by the way, is by design. "Hustle" started out as a movie about the '70s Abscam scandal (see sidebar) but now is just a comedy about scamming in general. The title card says, "Some of this actually happened."
Russell's movie is delivered with a nudge and a big, fat, knowing wink. It's about the art of the swindle, the way hucksterism is so deeply rooted in American culture that it's hard to tell the heroes from the villains, the real from the fake.
Who knows that territory better than an actor?
No wonder they love to play con men - in "The Sting," "Paper Moon" or "The Lady Eve." The latter, by Preston Sturges, has been cited as an inspiration for this film, although I just watched "The Palm Beach Story," and I missed the part where Joel McCrea dry humps Claudette Colbert in a toilet stall.
In truth, the movie "Hustle" most aggressively copies is Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" - the constant throb of period music, the dual-track narration that shifts POV from one character to another (the way Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta each narrate their side of a marriage in Scorsese's film).
One of our unreliable narrators is low-grade hustler Irving Rosenfeld (a paunchy Bale), who already has a handful of a wife (Jennifer Lawrence) when he meets his true larcenous soul mate (Adams), forming a very volatile triangle that informs everything that happens in "Hustle."
Which, essentially, is this: The two grifters get busted by an ambitious FBI agent (Cooper), who shanghais them for a government sting operation - one that uses fake Arabs (Michael Pena) to implicate Jersey officials (Renner) in bribery related to proposed casinos.
We see Rosenfeld develop a real affection for Renner's man-of-the-people mayor, see guilt well up in him, but not for very long. The movie is absorbed in Rosenfeld's complicated and volatile love life, and every few minutes there is a high-pitched scene for Bale, Lawrence or Adams.
Cooper is amped as well, a coke-sniffing G-man who falls for Adams. They go disco dancing and turn toward the camera, so we can all join in the fun.
Dancing with the stars!
And that's the problem. I laughed at the movie's comic crescendos but never quite believed I was watching anything other than skilled Hollywood pros in the process of beguiling the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
The most convincing performance? For me, it was Louis C.K., as a sad sack FBI bureaucrat, the resident party pooper here, and as such, banished into a very cruel exile.
The movie needs to take a breath, and it does for a minute when Rosenfeld delivers a speech in praise of forgery, equating the best fakes with the best art.
Maybe he's right.
But given a choice of watching "Hustle" or the original, I'll take "GoodFellas" every time.