Unlike its predecessor Silver Linings PlaybookAmerican Hustle is a slow-cooking picture. It takes a long time to get going, and doesn’t really explain where we’re going, but once we start rolling it becomes a cinematic dream.

The exposition, weirdly, is the film at some of its clunkiest. Maybe it’s the gradual, deliberate pacing or the oddly deafening silence (we don’t get the stellar soundtrack til about halfway through), but something about it feels uninvolving. The con scheme set up by Irving and Sydney (later Edith) doesn’t really make sense, and this disconnect makes it hard to stay interested and engaged with what’s going down.

The intervention of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, played to perfection by Bradley Cooper (who, in just two films, has become one of my favorite contemporary actors), is the first great curveball thrown at the lead duo. They get caught for their scheme and, in a similarly selfish fashion, he bets the odds in his favor and pushes them to topple greater and greater idols, not for Justice but for his own reputation.

The film is often patchy, alternating between sequences of nap-worthy doldrums and truly fantastic filmmaking. My favorite moments are the soundtrack-heavy ones, such as the disco nightclub scene (one of the best I’ve ever seen) and the montage of arrests at the film’s climax. It’s extraordinary how the glorious 70s soundtrack really raises the impact from watching a dime-a-dozen crime caper to this sublime, awe-inspiring cinematic experience. It’s like watching the greatest music video that was never made.

Other highlights, it goes without saying, are those featuring the unforgettable Jennifer Lawrence.  She plays the classic, genre-perfect crazy New Jersey wife with a bitchy honesty that never feels over-the-top or flamboyant. She exercises such remarkable control yet leaves a lasting screen presence, it’s hard to remember she is in the movie so little compared to the other main characters.

This film’s greatest strength, though, is in its unique brand of messaging.The Wolf of Wall Street (which I actually prefer) does have some line between right and wrong, even if that line is dotted and hard-to-read, American Hustle has no such line at all. Who of any of these characters, is good? Who is wholly unselfish? I love to see this kind of challenging storytelling, where there is no one really doing the right thing, and everyone is working an angle. Hollywood is often too timid to make a movie as cynical as this, and I applaud David O. Russell for having the guts to.

While it has some narrative issues and clunks along at times, it is an often-entertaining movie that delivers some unforgettable movie moments. Love it or hate it, people will be talking about American Hustle for years to come.