The fact that this film earned 10 Oscar nominations, including a perfect haul for all 4 acting categories, should get most Americans into the cinemas for American Hustle.

That the latter is a repeat performance following last year’s Silver Linings Playbook by director-co-writer David O. Russell, who himself has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director in 3 of the last 4 years is more icing on the cake.

Rounding up the best of his previous collaborators in a captivating crime comedy-drama mashup, the movie is loosely-based on the ABSCAM sting operation in the late 1970s for the FBI to catch corrupted politicians, something that most young non-Americans know nearly nothing about.

Irving Rosenfeld (an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale) is a con artist unhappily married to an unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). At a party, he falls in love with a similarly volatile character, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the 2 become partners in crime.

Sydney adopts the identity of “Lady Edith Greensly”, a noblewoman of British heritage who sports an ample cleavage, and the deadly duo make a killing attracting investors with false promises of generous returns.

But their lives of manipulation are thrown into disarray when FBI hothead Richard “Richie” Dimaso (Bradley Cooper) arrests them for their shady investment dealings. To secure their release, Irving agrees to help Richie trap 4 other swindlers.

In order to draw out their prey, the trio invents a fake Arab Sheik looking for investment opportunities. Their efforts eventually lead them to Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the well-intentioned mayor of New Jersey who’s campaigning to legalize gambling in Atlantic City.

What follows is the above-mentioned hustling as schemes go awry and deception becomes aplenty.

The first 15 minutes of screen time is already sufficient evidence of the overflowing talent present. Christian Bale’s performance is both a testimony to his dedication and his ability to completely reinvent himself as someone who’s a far cry from his chiseled body and composed portrayals in The Dark Knight trilogies and The Prestige. Who’d believe that Batman is capable of spluttering and heaving, let alone sporting a comb over and potbelly?

Constantly buffeting him are several colorful companions. Jennifer Lawrence is again an unpredictable, brazen character (having portrayed a similar role in Silver Linings Playbook). Only this time the 23-year-old Oscar-winning actress is Rosenfeld’s handful of a wife who never misses an opportunity to slip in a snide comment about her husband’s incompetence.

Her Playbook co-star Bradley Cooper, on the other hand, is brilliant in his interpretation of Richie, a bipolar, egomaniac officer who flirts dangerously with the workings of those in high places. His thirst for recognition had him resorting to brash and impulsive acts, like beating up his boss for refusing to give him US$10 million to bait corrupt politicians.

And therein lies American Hustle’s appeal – the variety of flawed personalities and their radically different agendas. Irving longs to escape with Sydney and his son, while Richie becomes embroiled in a world he underestimated. Consequently, the cop’s tale is one of humility, while Irving’s is about patience and sacrifice.

Refreshingly, there’s a lack of palpable limelight hogging, a common pitfall in films with multiple prominent faces (Ocean’s Eleven being a prime example).

And the film’s deserved rep as a comedy hit come from abundant jocular lines, from the downright disparaging remarks by Rosalyn (“You know that I would never say anything bad about your father in front of you, but he is a sick son of a b*tch” – to her son) to the amusing analogies laid out by Irving: “Always take the favor over the money, I believe Jesus said that.”

Despite the film’s multiple merits, the lack of a solid plot (considering it is based on a well-known and elaborate scam) is glaringly obvious throughout. Certain aspects, such as Irving’s heart condition, which showed up for no rhyme and reason, appeared squeezed in and contribute nothing to the overall story.

Another letdown was Robert De Niro’s imposing mobster boss character Victor Tellegio (the don of the casino trade), who raises expectations in an intense scene where he seemingly finds out about the ruse , yet is frustratingly absent for the remainder of the movie.

Instead, the remainder of the film recedes into constant name-dropping by Tellegio’s henchmen about how the head honcho will torture the protagonists. This over reliance on description and argumentation, and sometimes excessive and wearisome dialogue, may have worked well in the 70s, when this film was based, but today’s viewers prefer more in-your-face action.

But on balance, American Hustle sees Russell again showcasing his proficiency in crafting delightful interactions, resulting in a consummate tale of the struggles for a better life, delivered by an impeccable cast and perceptive director.

Rating: 3.8 out of 5
Release Date: Dec 26, 2013
Runtime: 138 min
Language: English
Censorship: R
Genre:  Crime, Drama
Director: David O. Russell
Main Actors: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper