David O. Russell's dramatic crime comedy "American Hustle" opens with a perfect tone-setting disclaimer: "Some of this actually happened."
And you believe it, because for the next two hours, you not only buy that some of this actually happened, but that it probably happened just the way the movie shows it, too.
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"American Hustle"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro
Directed by: David O. Russell
Other: A Sony Pictures release. Rated R for language, sexual situations, violence. 129 minutes
The screenplay is so dense and nuanced, the characters so textured and conflicted, the plot so tight and twisty that "American Hustle" achieves a dramatic reality of documentary proportions.
Prepare to be punched in the eyes. And ears.
Not really punched, but watching Russell's raw, energized movie feels like that.
The spunky characters constantly surprise us. Their dialogue snaps, crackles and pops. The sharp camera work and crisp editing suggest what the "Ocean's 11" remake might be like if directed by Martin Scorsese.
Then there's the hair.
Whoa! Dig those coifs.
Hair is as important to "American Hustle" as the basements are to "Prisoners" -- keys to the characters who possess them.
Russells' honed screenplay, co-written with Eric Warren Singer, tells a fictionalized version of the FBI's Abscam scandal from the 1970s, when a sting operation netted a few congressmen and other public officials on various corruption charges.
"American Hustle" opens with Irving Rosenfeld (a frumpy, potbellied Christian Bale), clumsily attempting to paste a chintzy hairpiece to his balding pate, then applying a comical comb-over as the final flourish in his artistically challenged creation.
Irving is as fake as his hair, an unlikely con artist who finds the way to Easy Street when he teams up with Sydney (Amy Adams). She's a Southwestern stripper who employs a British accent and likes to pass herself off as Lady Edith, an upper class investor with supposed lucrative London banking connections.
Her slinky tresses possess the same distracting allure as her plunging necklines, revealing she has no visible means of support.
Together, Irving and Sydney seem unstoppable at suckering investors out of their money. Until they try to put the touch on an undercover federal agent.
Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, wears his hair in tight, permanent-pressed ringlets. Striving for funky. Going for cool. Struggling to attain with-it-ness.
He makes the couple an offer they really can't refuse: Help Richie nail at least four corrupt public officials and they'll be off the hook.
No dummy, Sydney suggests they leave the country. But Irving can't do it. He has a son by his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose tight coif suggests a manipulating, controlling personality that would be dead accurate.
Irving wants to stay, so the con artists go along with Richie, who assigns them to set up the movie's biggest hair statement: a New Jersey mayor and community/political rock star Carmine Polito, played by Jeremy Renner, sporting the most pompous of pompadours.
Considered a true man of the people, Carmine buys into Irving's promise of funds to bolster the sagging economy of Atlantic City. Irving, through Richie, sets up the poor guy as bait for other pols.
Soon, you begin to feel bad for Carmine as Irving leads him farther down the road to corruption and bribery. Actually, you begin to feel bad for most of these poor souls, each one trying to hustle the others in a marvelously ambivalent tale of survival.
"American Hustle" is an excellent movie from the director of "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter." The actors' flawless cohesiveness can be doubtlessly traced to most of the main cast having worked with Russell before. (Renner is the new kid on the block.)
Chicago's Michael Pena makes a comical splash as a Mexican pal pulled in at the last minute to pose as a Middle East sheik. An uncredited Robert De Niro pops in as a mob lieutenant anxious to cash in on the scam.
Except for a quick flashback in which De Niro's mobster shoots a man, "American Hustle" is surprisingly violence-free. It allows the internal battles, political fights and conflicts in priorities to carry this comic gem of cinema.
It never lets us -- or its hair -- down.