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Sort of based on true events, American Hustle tracks a pair of New York City con-artists in 1978 as they get roped into helping an overeager FBI agent entrap politicians for taking bribes in the redevelopment of Atlantic City, inadvertently involving the mob.

The Players:

The Plot:

Small-time scam artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his faux-British, ambitious mistress (Amy Adams) try to pull one over on FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who in turn compels them to help in what turns out to be the Bureau’s infamous ABSCAM sting operation, eventually snagging the mayor of Camden, N.J., (Jeremy Renner) and a handful of Congressmen. Of course, Rosenfeld’s loose-cannon wife (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to sour the entire operation.

The Good:

  • Great performances abound: It’s obvious why actors love working for Russell — and keep coming back to him. Bale and Lawrence once again turn in tremendous work for the director who helped them each win Oscars, and Cooper is better than he’s ever been, allowing himself to disappear into a very complex and unhinged character. But the real treat here is Adams. Her role as the terrified-but-in-control rudder of the whole operation may not be as flashy as her co-stars’, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.
  • A deep bench: It’s already an embarrassment of riches with the four leads, but Russell has a massive and impressive cast of supporting and bit players here — with a few delightful surprises along the way that we won’t ruin. Boardwalk Empire fans will be delighted to see Jack Huston and Shea Whigham in attire from a different period, and Jeremy Renner and Elisabeth Rohm are terrific as the noble but conflicted mayor and his wife, while Louis C.K. as Cooper’s humorless supervisor is the icing on the cake.

The Bad:

  • Scorsese drag: Maybe it’s the period, maybe it’s the setting or maybe it’s the heavily New Yawk-accented narration, but at the end of American Hustle you’ll be convinced you’ve just watched a Martin Scorsese film, right down to the cinematography and use of period pop and rock music. There’s nothing to really distinguish it as a film by Russell aside from his regular stars.
  • The trouble with J-Law: Jennifer Lawrence — as always — is fantastic, turning in a performance that’s both flashy and nuanced and hitting some impressive emotionally unstable beats. But after this and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, it’s clear that Russell is willfully ignorant to her actual age. In both films Lawrence’s great work is undermined by the fact that the actress, now 23, is just too young for the roles.

Overall:

American Hustle is a delightful period caper, and though at times it seems like the film is sneeringly mocking its characters and the time period, the cast keeps it from sinking into parody. Martin Scorsese should feel very complimented.

Rating: 8/10

American Hustle is in limited release December 13 and theaters everywhere December 20.

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Trailer: