"The Hustle," Van McCoy's percolating disco hit from 1975, is not on the soundtrack to David O. Russell's "American Hustle," a caper comedy set in the era of beige bell-bottoms and spangled stilettoes. But you can almost hear that dreamy, brainless dance track as this movie's wonderfully despicable characters boogie their way toward disaster.
A tale of ill-gotten gain, overweening ambition and overwide lapels, "American Hustle" is a highly fictionalized version of the FBI's Hauppauge-based Abscam operation, which took down a dozen public officials yet ended in a public black eye for the agency. Its unlikely heroes are Long Islander Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a successful con man with an unsuccessful toupee, and his loyal but street-smart girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (an extraordinary Amy Adams). Nabbed by the FBI, the two are forced into a sting operation led by excitable agent Richie DiMaso (a curly-headed Bradley Cooper). Irving advises going for small fish, but Richie wants whales. Soon, they're targeting New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (an empathetic Jeremy Renner), various congressmen and, unwisely, the Mafia.
The themes of financial crime and government overreach may feel topical, but "American Hustle" isn't really a big-picture movie. It's a high-spirited lark that works thanks to Russell's dazzling direction, delicious period details and a parade of stellar performances. The movie's wildest card is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's volatile wife, Rosalyn, whose mood swings threaten to upend the entire operation.
Some of Russell's tricks feel familiar, but they mostly work. One is his deft way of fox-trotting his characters back and forth until whirling them together in one bravura sequence of fast-moving, crosscutting action -- in this case, a formal party teetering on disaster. Less effective is Russell's use of pop chestnuts (Steely Dan, Chicago, the Bee Gees) to set a mood or make a point. Lawrence's mad-housewife rendition of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" may be a gonzo hoot, but it also feels too broad for this otherwise sublime movie.
Despite some small missteps, "American Hustle" moves with an energy that's irresistible. A less skilled director might have turned it into mess, but Russell always keeps the beat.
PLOT A con man, his girlfriend and an overambitious FBI agent combine to make a volatile team.
RATING R (language, nudity, violence, drug use)
CAST Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper
BOTTOM LINE Another high-energy dazzler from David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook"), packed with vibrant performances and delicious '70s details.