12/20/2013 08:25 EST | Updated 02/19/2014 05:59 EST

'American Hustle' Review: A Whole Lotta Style, Not A Lot Of Substance

eOne Films

As you've probably heard by now, people are going absolutely crazy over David O. Russell's follow-up to "Silver Linings Playbook," "American Hustle." Both critics and audiences alike are raving about it, quoting lines from the movie and saying it's the best thing to hit theatres in years. While I can wholeheartedly agree that "American Hustle" is a whole lotta fun with a whole lotta style, when you dig deeper there isn't very much underneath.

The film starts off with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge as "Some of this actually happened" appears on the screen. Rather than the usual "Based on a true story," which often works to validate the movie's contents, "Some of this actually happened" works to the opposite effect and sets the tone for the rest of the film: what we're about to see is hardly based on reality, and instead is a collection of interactions and events that push the boundaries of chaos. It's an almost impossible situation, fuelled by borderline insane behaviour by each of the characters, and it's quite something that this movie resembles anything coherent by the final frame.

As far as ensemble movies go -- where a bunch of A-listers are jammed into one movie, usually resulting in a mess of egos battling for screen time -- "American Hustle" exceeds expectation. While Jennifer Lawrence's blatantly aggressive character, Rosalyn, emerges as the most notable and crowd-friendly (read: bull in a china shop), for the most part the actors work together in an appealing way, and don't come off as spotlight-hogging narcissists. ("Ocean's Twelve," "Ocean's Thirteen," "New Year's Eve" and "Valentine's Day" are examples of the ensemble formula where too many stars ruin the film.) But the fact that it doesn't ascribe to the usual ensemble movie pitfalls somehow doesn't make it a spectacular film; there is something hollow underneath all the artifice, almost as if Russell is hoping we'll be distracted by all the pomp and ample cleavage to notice the film is bereft of any real substance. Just because something is fun doesn't necessarily mean it's great.

Trying to whittle down the plot of "American Hustle" is tough without spoiling anything, so I'll say this much: every single character is a hustler. They lie, they craft elaborate false identities, they filch money from desperate people, they couch corrupt actions in the guise of nobility, and damn, this movie features some of the lowest V-necks in cinematic history. The running thread is the question of identity. Who am I? Who are you? Frequent references to this theme are thrown out frequently, with characters saying things like "I know who you are" and "This is real." Yes, life is a series of lies, and we spend every waking minute duping people into believing we're something we're not. That's the overall message of "American Hustle."

In lieu of a straightforward plot description, let's take a closer look at each of the major characters. A key point: every actor in this movie goes balls-out, like they each took a little bump before going on-set.

Christian Bale as Irving

He's overweight for the role. And he has a combover (which, as I later found out, he achieved by shaving his head and growing it that way). I respect Bale's dedication to his craft; he frequently sheds weight and goes to extremes for roles, and here he's almost unrecognizable. Unfortunately, he's also the weakest character, playing the role of the hustler almost to a fault. Where the other characters are caricatures of hustlers, Bale actually attempts to be one without any irony. As a result, Irving meanders, is weighed down by guilt, has an undisclosed medical issue that ebbs and flows randomly, and since we don't know who's telling the truth or not, it's difficult to know what his real intentions are (maybe that's the point?). By film's end (as hard as this is to believe), he's the wet blanket -- but that could be due to the eccentricities of the other characters.

Bradley Cooper as Richie

Richie is an FBI agent eager to be part of the big score. He has delusions of grandeur and considers himself to be the big cheese. Of all the characters, he's the most naive, and is thus the perfect mark for a bunch of hustlers. His tight curls and big tie knots are humourous, sure, and Cooper has come a long way with his comic delivery, but again, there's no reason to root for Richie. When he gets duped by [not revealing it here], you actually feel good.

Amy Adams as Sydney

I feel like Adams is in every movie nowadays, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In "American Hustle," she's charming, and I felt a smile creeping onto my face every time she was on-screen. Sydney's outfits are a big distraction (again, not complaining), what with the V-necks down to her crotch, but I'd have to say, of all the characters, Adams delivers the best performance. She's not too straight, not too silly, but gives us both laughter and drama.

Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn

Lawrence is riding a career high right now. She could probably sit in a chair for 1.5 hours and it would still be a box-office hit. While she steals every scene she's featured in, and she's most likely to be the character everyone remembers, sometimes she's too much (sample quote: "SMELL MY NAILS!"). At one point, Rosalyn puts a tinfoil covered meal into her new microwave, after distinct warnings not to do that. Why? I don't know, other than to provide some levity, and a chance for Lawrence to scream and run around the kitchen. You can almost picture Russell giggling at his script, knowing that his Lawrence freak-out scenes from "Silver Linings Playbook" were the most popular. In "American Hustle," Lawrence stops just short of breaking through the screen with her endless tantrums and meltdowns. They're mostly funny, but eventually tiresome.

Jeremy Renner as Mayor Carmine Polito

Renner plays my favourite character in the movie. Maybe it's because I'm so used to him in action-y roles, or maybe it's because I'm used to a certain type of mayor (ahem). In this film, he plays a genuine, emotional mayor, who loves his family and his city. He's sucked into Irving and Sydney's plans, thinking that what he's doing will be best for the populace. Yes, I'll admit that I was awed by his awesome pompadour, but I stayed for his delivery and performance.

"American Hustle" is essentially a caper, dressed up in 1970s garb, with funny hair, over-the-top dialogue and lots of swearing. But don't be hustled into believing it's something it's not.

"American Hustle" opens in theatres on December 20.

"American Hustle" Photos