David O'Russell's surefire Oscar nominee American Hustle is a bona fide mess, melding stylistic references and tones with reckless abandon. Based on the real-life Abscam case, where con man Melvin Weinberg worked with the FBI in the late 1970s on a sting operation created to catch corrupt politicians, the film reinvents history through the lens of farce.
Except this glitzy and raucous vision doesn't go far enough down the rabbit hole of absurdity to make the necessary impact. Instead, O'Russell gives the viewer a haphazard mosaic of shifty archetypes constantly verbalizing their internal conflicts in exhaustive fashion.
Weinberg's cinematic stand-in is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a slightly pudgy grifter with a comb-over that would make Donald Trump feel inadequate. After getting caught selling illegal loans to unsuspecting marks, Irving and his sly business partner, Sydney (Amy Adams), are forced to collude with undercover agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to avoid prison.
The opening shot is a bit of a stunner: Irving attempts to corral his elaborate hairpiece with a thick mist of hairspray as the camera watches in a single take. Once finished, he joins his two cohorts working to entrap a New Jersey politician (Jeremy Renner) hoping to gain funds illegally in order to restore Atlantic City's gambling havens.
American Hustle then jumps back in time, as so many of these films do, to chart how and why these characters have arrived at this juncture. Voiceover narration is prevalent, as is the standard Scorsese-esque tracking shot. It's all style and very little substance.
If O'Russell's last three films prove any one trend, it's that he's a director pandering to those critics and Academy voters easily swayed by pomp, circumstance and a lot of showboating. In the immortal words of the precocious titular tween of Three Men and a Little Lady, "What a crock."
—Glenn Heath Jr.
American Hustle: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in David O'Russell's retelling of the infamous Abscam sting established by the FBI in order to capture corrupt politicians and gangsters in the late 1970s.
Anchorman: The Legend Continues: Infamous San Diego newscaster and lothario Ron Burgundy (Will Farrell) brings his motley crew of wacky colleagues to New York City in hopes of making it big on a national television channel. Opens Dec. 18.
Desert Runners: Ultra-marathoners and their experiences traversing some of the world's most dangerous landscapes are the focus of this intense and personal documentary by Jennifer Steinman. Through Dec. 26 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Inside Llewyn Davis: Joel and Ethan Coen's latest odyssey is set in 1961 Greenwich Village, where a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) comes to grips with his failure as an artist and a human being.
Nosotros Los Nobles: A business mogul forces his spoiled children to work for a living if they want to have a chance at inheriting the family fortune. This comedy from Mexico was a box-office sensation in its home country. Through Dec. 26 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Saving Mr. Banks: Marry Poppins scribe P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) travels to Los Angeles to discuss a potential film adaptation by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in this whimsical biopic about two artists struggling to compromise.
One Time Only
House of Frankenstein: Classic monsters of the Universal Studios canon (including Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man) converge in this 1944 all-star horror film. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, at the San Diego Public Library in East Village.
The Willow Tree: Majid Majidi's 2005 drama follows a blind professor who's diagnosed with a fatal disease and travels to France for treatment. Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, at Scripps Ranch Library.
Christmas Vacation: Join the Griswald family as they try to survive multiple pitfalls during the holiday season. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
A Christmas Story: All young Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Rider pump-action BB gun, but he might be destined for disappointment in this 1983 holiday classic. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 20 and 21 at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Give your friends and family the demented gift of Dr. Frank-N-Furter for the holidays. Screens at midnight Saturday, Dec. 21, at the Ken Cinema.
It's a Wonderful Life: George Bailey (James Stewart) learns the ultimate Christmas lesson when he's given a glimpse into a world where he was never born. Screens at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, at Arclight La Jolla.
Bringing Up Bobby: Olive (Milla Jovovich) is a con artist trying to escape her dangerous past in order to give her 10-year-old son a better life in Famke Janssen's directorial debut. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23, at the San Diego Public Library in East Village.
Bad Santa: Billy Bob Thornton plays a drunken con man who poses as a mall Santa in order to pull off a heist on Christmas Eve. Terry Zwigoff's foul-language classic is the anti-Christmas movie in the best way possible. Presented by Flicks by the Fire, it screens at 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23, at The W Hotel's rooftop bar.
20 Feet from Stardom: Backup singers for today's superstars finally take center stage in this music documentary featuring a range of inspirational stories about artistic endurance and passion. Ends Dec. 19 at the Ken Cinema.
Hours: The late Paul Walker stars as a conflicted father attempting to wait out Hurricane Katrina in a hospital while protecting his newborn daughter, who's breathing with help from a ventilator. Screens at AMC Plaza Bonita in Chula Vista.
Paradise: Love: The first segment in Ulrich Seidl's trilogy, the film follows a middle-aged woman who travels to Kenya to partake in sex tourism. Ends Dec. 18 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Paradise: Faith: Religion and repression form the central struggle at the heart of Ulrich Seidl's second film in the Austrian director's trilogy of modern-day emotional angst. Ends Dec. 19 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Paradise: Hope: Set at a camp for overweight teens, the third film in the Austrian auteur's trilogy concerns a 13-year-old who falls in love during a summer of emotional revelation. Ends Dec. 18 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), please meet Smaug, fire-breathing dragon and protector of all things gold. Have a nice three hours together.
The Last Days on Mars: Sci-fi film about a disobedient scientist who leaves his team of astronauts on a Mars mission in order to follow a lead that could potentially reveal an astounding discovery. Ends Dec. 19 at the Ken Cinema.
Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas: Filmmaker Tyler Perry's wildly popular fictional creation, the titular massive and sassy grandma, wreaks havoc on a small rural town during the holiday season.
Narco Cultura: The rise of corridos, folk songs that celebrate narco culture and violence, is juxtaposed with real-world consequences of the bloody drug war in Mexico. Screens at AMC Palm Promenade.
Out of the Furnace: The hills of Appalachia are alive with the sound of violence in this mountain noir starring Christian Bale as a blue-collar worker attempting to find his kidnapped brother (Casey Affleck), who's being held by a local gangster (Woody Harrelson).
Black Nativity: Angela Basset and Forest Whitaker lead this ensemble dramedy about a young man who visits his estranged relatives for the holidays, only to discover a newfound sense of family and inspiration.
The Book Thief: A young girl faced with the horrors of Nazi Germany steals books as an act of defiance and begins sharing them with Jewish refugees. Markus Zusak's best-selling novel comes to the big screen in this adaptation starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
Homefront: Jason Statham plays a former DEA agent who retires to a backwoods town only to find more trouble in the form of a country gangster (James Franco!) looking to protect his drug operations.
Nebraska: Aged retiree Woody (Bruce Dern) is determined to collect his winnings after receiving a phony sweepstakes letter, eventually dragging his reluctant son (Will Forte) on a road trip that'll change both of their lives. Alexander Payne's latest is a melancholic ode to family and the Midwest.
Oldboy: Spike Lee's remake of the brutal Korean revenge saga stars Josh Brolin as a man imprisoned for 20 years by an unknown captor, only to be suddenly released without explanation and taunted by a madman.
Philomena: Comedian Steve Coogan takes on a more serious role as a cynical journalist who ends up helping an elderly woman (Judi Dench) search for her long lost son. Oscar nominations are a certainty.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself once again fighting to survive the titular death match that has become a necessary evil in the dystopic future.
Delivery Man: Vince Vaughn's man-child finds out he has fathered 533 children after donating to a sperm bank for decades. Hollywood at its finest.
Blue is the Warmest Color: A high-school student discovering her burgeoning sexuality falls for a blue-haired art student in this French epic that won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Ends Dec. 19 at Hillcrest Cinemas.
The Best Man Holiday: A collection of college friends reunite for the holidays after 15 years, revealing a host of grudges and romantic intentions that have been simmering under the surface for years.
Dallas Buyers Club: In 1985, a drunken rodeo clown Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughy) learns he has HIV. Seeing an opportunity to stave off his own death and make some money, he begins smuggling unapproved drugs in from Mexico.
Mysteries of the Unseen World: This amazing documentary uses high-speed and time-lapse photography to focus on things that are either too fast or two slow for the eye to see. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Thor: The Dark World: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) once again brings the hammer down on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to save the human race and sustain the fragile balance of his own kingdom.
12 Years a Slave: Abducted and forced to work on a Southern plantation, free man Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejifor) experiences the horrors of slavery in Steve McQueen's stirring period-piece drama.
About Time: In Richard Curtis' (Love Actually) charming modern fable co-starring Rachel McAdams, a young man discovers he can travel through time and seeks to use his power to find his soul mate. Ends Dec. 19 at La Jolla Village Cinemas.
Ender's Game: Orson Scott Card's classic sci-fi novel about a young pilot fending off an alien threat finally gets adapted for the big screen, surely angering fans everywhere. Harrison Ford co-stars as a growling general.
Free Birds: This animated film follows two combative turkeys (voiced by Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson) as they try to get the gobbler off the holiday menu by traveling back in time.
Last Vegas: A foursome of aging Oscar-winning actors (Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Robert De Niro) play seniors who head to Las Vegas for one final hurrah of debauchery and camaraderie.
All is Lost: A nameless Man (Robert Redford) battles extreme weather and technology failure to keep his small sailboat afloat in this thrilling tale of survival from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call).
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: After grossing out America in 3-D, Johnny Knoxville gives his grumpy, ill-mannered, senior-citizen sketch character a feature-film platform.
Captain Phillips: Based on actual events, this thriller by director Paul Greengrass tells the story of the container ship Maersk Alabama and its leader, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), who was kidnapped by Somali pirates during a voyage in 2009.
Deep Sea: A glorious ocean exploration with Del Mar's own veteran underwater filmmakers and explorers, Howard and Michele Hall. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Gravity: Sandra Bullock plays a marooned astronaut struggling to survive an epic space disaster in Alfonso Cuarón's breathless adventure film.
Cosmic Collisions: So, that asteroid that might smash into Earth in 20 years is much bigger than previously thought? Awesome. This new IMAX movie at the Reuben H. Fleet looks at what happens when things bash into each other in outer space. On the bright side, if we go the way of the dinosaurs, at least future species will have a new source of fossil fuels.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.