David O. Russell has delivered with his latest film which features an all star cast.

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Hustlers strive for excess
Amy Adams and Christian Bale in a scene from American Hustle. Picture: AP

FILM
American Hustle (MA 15+)
4.5 stars
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper
DIRECTOR DAVID O. RUSSELL
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS

David O. Russell has such a ragged, borderline chaotic style that it prevented me from fully warming to his previous two features, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, despite a series of bravura performances that resulted in multiple Oscar nominations.

Indeed, Russell indulged his actors so much, and paid so little attention to storytelling, that he had to fall back on default Hollywood fairytale endings to wrap things up, undermining the raw, vital indie aesthetic of both movies. American Hustle, a sprawling, 1970s-set comedy about a notorious FBI sting that itself came under investigation, has the same indulgences and many of the same actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro).

But here Russell's immersive, off-the-rails approach works, delivering an outrageously entertaining match of form and content that, in this age of high- quality television, reminds us how good cinema can be.

If you think TV is better than movies nowadays, as is widely believed, wait until you get a load of the frenetic nightclub scenes in American Hustle, which are so alive with the energy and excesses of the era that you're tempted to slip into a Bee Gees-ready outfit and dive into the screen.

American Hustle is loosely inspired by an FBI operation known as Abscam, in which the agency blackmailed convicted con artist Melvin Weinberg into helping them entrap corrupt public officials (Abscam was a contraction of "Arab scam" because the agents cooked up a fake Middle-Eastern company to lure crooked politicians). In the movie Melvin morphs into Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), whose expansive stomach and renegade toupee - the application of glue is required to stop it escaping the top of his head - gives him an awkwardness that allays the fears of his victims.

It also makes Irving strangely attractive to Sydney (Adams), a vivacious former stripper from New Mexico who, to feed her rich fantasy life, enjoys passing herself off as an upper-crust Brit named Lady Edith who has strong banking connections.

Sydney's alias comes in handy when this oddest of couples form a larcenous alliance in which they facilitate fake loans at $5000 a pop, a scam that works beautifully until one of their marks, a good-looking stud with a tight curly perm, turns out to be a manic, show-boating FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Cooper).

Instead of charging them, Richie strongarms Irving and Sydney into working for the Feds (four significant arrests and their names will be cleared), with their first target a New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is so dedicated to bringing jobs to his embattled constituents he's willing to do business with all manner of shady characters, from Arab sheiks to the Miami Mafia.

This sounds like the set-up for a gangster epic by Martin Scorsese and, indeed, Russell's use of era-specific songs, from Elton's John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road through to ELO's Long Black Road, together with those breathtakingly fluid tracking shots, will have you flashing back to Goodfellas.

But American Hustle is closer in spirit to the screwball comedies of the 1930s or the satires of Billy Wilder, which celebrate the vitality and excesses of American life, relishes in the eccentricity of characters and their cockamamie dreams and refuse to judge even the wickedest among them too harshly.

Those eccentrics are magnificently embodied by Russell's sensationally good ensemble, with Bale burying the signature intensity under layers of fat, making way for the most relaxed performance of his career, Adams a perfect mix of sexy toughness and heartbreaking vulnerability, while Cooper is hilarious as the FBI agent with dreams of being the next J. Edgar Hoover, despite still living at home with his mother.

Best of all is Silver Linings Playbook Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, who takes the supporting role as Irving's gorgeous but dangerously stupid young wife (think Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday), whose reckless behaviour and big mouth threaten the whole operation and put them in the firing line of the Florida mob. This time the electrifying Lawrence really does catch fire.

Indeed, American Hustle is at its funniest when those in on the craziness of the sting collide with the outsiders to the madness, such as Lawrence's Rosalyn and Richie's long-suffering boss (Louis CK), who looks upon the wannabe Starsky and Hutch's every off-the-wall request (millions of dollars, whole floors of five-star hotels) through disbelieving, world-weary eyes. The two FBI agents occupy different realties, different movies.

And yet, amid the corruption, the careerism and the insane schemes to clean up Washington in the post-Watergate era is the flicker of humanity behind Irving's oversized spectacles, with this most ordinary of criminals agonising over bringing down Renner's well- meaning mayor, with whom he forges a genuine bond.

American Hustle fiddles with the theme of reality versus deception. The film's strength is its evocation of a time and place and it's depiction of characters who are constantly on the make, strivers so alive that it really does take you to the heart, not just of the hustle, but the American dream.