Director David O'Russell's exuberant foray into the world of con men and corruption was inspired by the real-life Abscam scandal of the 1970s. In that ugly chapter of recent American history, an FBI investigation -- aided by a con man -- led to a sting that resulted in the conviction of six congressman and a New Jersey senator.
If you're unfamiliar with Abscam, you needn't bother to look it up: The movie's link to real life events is a bit tenuous and ultimately unimportant: American Hustle is best seen as a movie about the spirit of the '70s, as well as a look at some of the more colorful characters the decade spawned.
American Hustle also features some of the year's best acting, much of it from actors who also appeared in Russell's equally enjoyable Silver Linings Playbook.
Christian Bale -- a reported 50 pounds overweight and sporting one of the worst hairpieces in the history of hairpieces (if there is such a thing) -- plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time chiseler who also runs a chain of dry cleaning stores in the Bronx.
At a party, Irving finds his a soulmate. She's Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who's able to pass herself off as an English woman of culture and distinction.
Sydney responds to Irving's love of Duke Ellington. Why not? If she gets Ellington, there's a good chance she'll get Irving, too. Irving quickly falls in love with Sydney: His spirits are buoyed by her ability to help him elevate his game. He begins to blossom -- and so does his criminal activity.
Of course, Irving isn't entirely free. He happens to be married to a busty woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who's constantly nagging him about one thing or another and with whom he shares an adopted son.
The usually intense Bale seems to be having fun for a change, and I'm not sure that Adams ever has had a better role. Her Sydney is attractive, smart and skillful at striking almost any pose.
Lawrence again proves that she's a terrific actress. Her Rosalyn is a bombshell who spills out of dresses in ways that seem as uncontrollable as her character's eruptive mind.
The plot heats up when Irving and Sydney are busted. Richie DiMaso -- an ambitious FBI agent played by a tightly permed Bradley Cooper -- offers to let this morally dubious duo walk if Irving and Sydney help him make four major busts. They agree, and the movie turns into a comic mystery about who actually might be getting conned.
Russell directs with a zest that seems to have filtered into Cooper's performance, which is full of lewd energies and cocky swagger. A subdued Louis C.K. offers counterpoint as Richie's far more conservative boss.
Russell allows Irving and Sydney to take turns narrating the movie, a stylistic ploy that adds to fun. Russell isn't interested in a Rashomon-like shift in perspectives: He's more interested in taking us inside the world of characters we alternately find appalling and lovable.
And that's the key to what Russell accomplishes: Irving has likable qualities. He can be boorish, but he's also capable of caring about people in ways that feel real. There's a sense of true, live-and-let-live tolerance about him.
To demonstrate this, the screenplay, by Russell and Eric Singer, shows Irving developing a real friendship with Carmine Politio (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor whose corruption stems from an apparently genuine desire to serve his constituents and create jobs. He wants money to rebuild Atlantic City, still a gambling mecca in waiting.
At one point, Carmine expresses his affection for Irving by giving him a microwave oven. Having never seen one before, the befuddled Irving refers to it as "a science oven."
Liberated from the world of munitions (The Hurt Locker) and action (Mission Impossible -- Ghost Protocol), Renner piles on a robust helping of good-fella charm.
Remember, Irving's no dope. His meeting with a genuine gangster (a late-picture cameo from Robert De Niro) confirms what he already knows: Irving recognizes that he's better at small cons than big ones. He understands his limitations.
At some point -- maybe about three-quarters of the way through -- the picture loses a bit of steam, and I found myself worrying that Russell might not be able to pull the whole thing together. I think he does, and -- in the process -- creates one of the few movies of 2013 that I was sorry to see end.