American Hustle gives stinging depiction of disco-era con artists

Hair curlers and con men abound in this excellent disco-era period piece

The brash, satirical American Hustle makes you wonder if the cast lost a bet with the costumers and hairstylists. The opening image shows a bulked-up Christian Bale assembling a ghastly comb-over, and every scene seems intent on topping the last in presenting the fashion don'ts of disco-era 1970s, culminating with a phone conversation between Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper, both wearing their hair in conspicuous curlers.

The hairdos and outfits don't just play for laughs, but remind you not to take everything in American Hustle at face value. An opening title announces, "Some of this actually happened," signaling that writer/director David O. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer have taken liberties with their dramatization of the 1978 FBI sting known as "Abscam." Rather than glorify the operation a la Argo, American Hustle presents a vision of this country with everyone on the make.

Bale plays self-professed con man Irving Rosenfeld, who moves into a bigger league of deception when he falls in love with stripper-turned-journalist Sydney Prosser (Adams). With Sydney impersonating an English aristocrat, the two run a fraudulent loan operation until they get busted by Richie DiMaso (Cooper), a high-strung, ambitious FBI agent. Richie enlists the couple to help him bag more high-profile targets. When the scheme expands to include a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), U.S. congressmen, and bona fide mobsters, Irving realizes that he's a small-timer in way over his head.

American Hustle builds momentum as Richie's plans accelerate, and part of the film's appeal is that every character is some kind of unreliable loose cannon (with the possible exception of Louis C.K. as a straight-arrow FBI supervisor). Perhaps the biggest wild card is Irving's wife (Jennifer Lawrence), an erratic, attention-hungry young woman with a son and a sun lamp, who threatens an already unstable situation. The lively, constantly rotating pop soundtrack signals the shifts in power.

The actors feast on their roles, with Renner making his New Jersey politico a well-meaning mensch underneath a helmet of hair, and the fluctuations of Adams' fake English accent revealing her insecurities. We don't invest as much as we should in Bale's performance as Irving, however. Bale won an Oscar for his live-wire turn in Russell's The Fighter, but here he may be encumbered by all the excess weight, hair prosthetics, and De Niro-esque vocal patterns, so his role seems more moody than desperate.

American Hustle seeks to emulate the feverish energy of Martin Scorsese at his peak, and doesn't quite match the intensity and breadth of a Goodfellas. Nevertheless, it works both as a delightfully unsavory period piece and a pointed commentary on America after the economic crash, an event that revealed that the country's key institutions amount to little more than hustlers on the make.