In the 1970s, two con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) are forced into helping a federal agent (Bradley Agent) to catch other criminals.

The Heist, the Hair

There are some moviegoers who avoid reading anything about a film before they see it. Others are sensitive to the relatively recent and short-sighted phenomenon known as 'spoilers," learning plot details or twists in advance. The more militant even avoid coming attractions trailers altogether, going so far as to turn away from televisions and time theatre entrance around them.

The leading players are well in the spirit of the proceedings

Those counting themselves amongst any or all of those camps may want to avoid even looking at photographs from director and co-writer David O. Russell’s fast-paced and very funny con movie American Hustle prior to viewing. Between the outlandish hairstyles and the garish clothes, the pictures suggest an awkward and overly exaggerated 1970s period movie.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Well, it is a 1970s period piece, but so convincingly does Christian Bale cuddle under his gravity-defying comb-over, so relaxed is Bradley Cooper in his clenched permanent (even shown in one scene sporting pink curlers) and with such aplomb does Amy Adams wear those plunging necklines that, rather than take one out of the picture, the Me-Decade trappings actually enhance the experience. In fact, one colleague at a recent press show had no idea Bale was the lead until the credits rolled.

'Some of this actually happened," an opening title card assures, and it’s true: the film’s plot is hung on the story arc of the legendary Abscam swindle of late 1970s and early 1980s. Caught in the middle of a scam, con artists/lovers Irving Rosenfeld (Bale, playing a character modelled after real-life participant Mel Weinberg) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are recruited by young, ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) to stage pay-offs by mysterious Arab sheiks to politicians to entrap them. Most prominent amongst these public servants is smiling Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, sporting a swooping 'do of his own), with whom Irving becomes fast friends.

Things begin to go awry when Irving’s actual wife Rosalyn (a scene-stealing Jennifer Lawrence), shrill and unstable at the best of times, embraces her role as a woman scorned.

The fundamental achievement of the film, which was co-written with Eric Warren Singer (The International), is the irreverent and often exaggerated comedic tone it creates, and more or less sustains. What may come across as an undisciplined approach to narrative and structure—tag-team voiceover narrations, a weird fascination with the things people do with their hands—is in fact a deliberately vertiginous approach to the creation of an anything-goes atmosphere that matches the emotional temperature of the times.

The leading players are well in the spirit of the proceedings, supplemented by comedian Louis C.K. as Richie’s tightly-wrapped superior, Michael Pena as a stone-faced Hispanic agent recruited to play a Saudi prince, and, in blink-and-you’ll-miss-'em cameos, beloved 1970s character actors Anthony Zerbe and Colleen Camp.

Sure to be compared to Martin Scorsese’s upcoming and hotly anticipated The Wolf of Wall Street for cheerful period excesses (not to mention certain similarities with both GoodFellas and Boogie Nights), American Hustle is as funny in its own distinctively dark way as Russell’s only previous foray out of the present day, the first Gulf War film Three Kings (as well as, to a certain extent, the maligned but prodigiously imaginative I Heart Huckabees). And, to some sensibilities, this may well be his most accomplished film since the con dreamed up by George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in that comedic thriller.