Film review: American Hustle (15)

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DAVID O Russell follows up his bipolar romance Silver Linings Playbook by giving a real political scandal the Goodfellas treatment, and giving Christian Bale a heroically awful combover.

American Hustle (15)

Amy Adams is flanked by Christian Bale on a bad hair day and Bradley Cooper

Amy Adams is flanked by Christian Bale on a bad hair day and Bradley Cooper

Director: David O Russell

Running time: 138 minutes

Star rating: * * * *

You can only imagine that American Hustle’s hair and wardrobe artists must have skipped to work when they realised the film was set in the 1970s. A major male star submits to a tight curly perm, while the hottest young female of the moment carries off a do conceived by Mr Whippy on hash brownies, but Bale’s is the most character-forming. We see him arranging his big dreams and big hair at the start of American Hustle, a painstaking labour involving paint, glue and what looks like brown cotton wool.

Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld runs a dry-cleaning chain, but his real business is cleaning out the gullible with scams involving forged art, high-interest loans and nonexistent investment opportunities. He’s a phony down to the roots of his hair, but genuinely falls for Sydney (Amy Adams), a New Mexico stripper who now passes herself off as a British aristocrat with a fractured cut glass accent. With breasts that arrive five minutes ahead of the rest of her, she’s a distraction whenever a guy is supposed to concentrate on trivial matters like where his money is going. Yet she’s just as invested in her affair with Irving as he is.

Together they take conning suckers to a new level until an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) catches them and puts their talents to work in a government sting to expose political bribery and corruption. The target is Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and the elaborate plotting involves a fake Sheikh (Alessandro Nivola) impersonating a young Christopher Walken and a version of Live And Let Die that leaves few survivors.

Russell’s homage to Martin Scorsese’s hyperactive style includes restless cameras, a soundtrack of smartly applied standards and an uncredited Robert De Niro performance that goes some way to making up for his participation in the dreadful wiseguy spoof The Family last month. Russell also adopts the inner-voiceovers Marty loves so much, sharing them out between the main players – including Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, Bale’s estranged boozy, desperate housewife. Lawrence may still be quivering on billboards as the stoic heroine of Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but her trashy, taloned tour de force is the antithesis of Katniss, a woman so ferociously destructive that she annihilates microwaves on first use. Her performance, like a lot of this film, perpetually teeters on the edge of ridiculous cartoonishness, yet is rescued by its pizzazz.

The Abscam affair was a real three-year FBI operation, although one better known to American audiences. “Only some of this actually happened,” warns the film at the outset but Russell’s best movies have always been about duplicity, whether it’s the misdirection as to America’s purpose in the Iraq war (Three Kings), or family fibs in The Fighter. You may not trust the facts in American Hustle but you can rely on it as one of this year’s most aggressively entertaining films. n

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

• London West End from Friday; cinemas nationwide from 1 January