Prefaced by a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer - “Some of this actually happened” - 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 humiliating disarray.
This protracted prologue perfectly 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 that flickers before our eyes.
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.
“She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” laments Irving in droll voiceover.
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.
Inspired by the ABSCAM F.B.I. sting of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which brought down several politicians and public servants, American Hustle has moments of brilliance.
Sydney and Rosalyn’s big showdown brings out the best in Lawrence and Adams, both using verbal barbs rather than claws to draw blood.
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 (“the science oven”) 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.