'American Hustle' (R)

Everyone in American Hustle is lying and scheming and conning and plotting: Whenever someone stops to actually tell the truth, disaster almost always follows. This is a lively, genial comedy about hucksterism as the American dream — about people doing what they want and going after what they want, and sorry if you happen to be in their way.

Director David O. Russell (The Fighter, The Silver Linings Playbook), who co-wrote the script with Eric Warren Singer, uses the 1970s Abscam scandal, which resulted in the convictions of 19 politicians, as a very loose springboard for his own merry tale of an FBI sting operation gone wrong. The movie opens with the title card “Some of this actually happened,” letting you know from the start the film is not intended as a history lesson.

Nor should it be taken very seriously. Russell’s loosest, most playful film to date, American Hustle is an unexpectedly funny take on a serious subject, told through the eyes of five protagonists. Irving (Christian Bale) is a pot-bellied scammer with an elaborate combover who supplements his income from his laundromat by selling stolen paintings on the black market and fleecing desperate businessmen with fake investment opportunities. Sydney (Amy Adams) is his partner in crime, a shrewd businesswoman who adopts a fake British accent, passes herself off as royalty to gain their targets’ trust and uses her beauty as a sleight-of-hand distraction (every dress she owns seems designed to show off her cleavage).

Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is Irving’s unhappy wife, a shrill and demanding woman who refuses to grant him a divorce (he legally adopted her son) and is prone to setting their home on fire by accident. She’s the loose cannon who is capable of bringing down the whole operation. Richie (Bradley Cooper) is an FBI agent chasing after grandeur and fame: After he busts Irving and Sydney during one of their small-time scams, he forces them to cooperate with him and go after bigger fish or else get sent to prison. And Carmine (Jeremy Renner) is the New Jersey mayor who is trying to do the best for his constituents by turning Atlantic City into a gambling paradise. He’s not corrupt — he really is a man of the people — but he unwittingly gets snared in an increasingly complicated sting that grows to involve senators, congressmen and, most alarmingly (and dangerously), the mob.

Russell lays out the intricacies of the covert operation cleanly and clearly, but it’s the characters, not the sting, that interest him the most. Every performance in American Hustle is one to relish: They’re the reason the movie will endure. Bale, too often cast as brooding, tortured men, is terrific as Irving, who quietly suffers his wife’s indignities, is often in a state of quiet exasperation (watch how he’s constantly fiddling with his aviator glasses) and is frightened by the way the sting operation keeps growing. He’s not a violent man, he has an aversion to danger and he’s not interested in going after big shots. He’s content feeding off little fish. Adams exudes brains and sex appeal as Bale’s partner and potential soulmate: She admits she doesn’t understand why she’s attracted to him but she falls for him hard, and when he refuses to leave his wife for the sake of his son, it breaks her heart.

Cooper’s vain, hot-tempered FBI agent, who isn’t above beating up his boss (a hilarious Louis CK) to get what he needs, becomes the movie’s de facto villain in a story where he should be the hero. His greed and aggressiveness are off-putting, and he’s so blinded by the potential career boost that awaits him if he pulls off the operation, he’s too distracted to realize when he, too, is being conned. Renner is sweet and earnest as the well-meaning but oblivious mayor — a likable stooge in a movie filled with sharks. And Lawrence continues to surprise as Irving’s shouty, needy wife, whose constant anger and frustration mask a deep loneliness and depression. She seems to intentionally wreak havoc just to get her husband’s attention (when he brings home a new device known as a microwave, which they call a “science oven,” he warns her not to put any metal inside; the first thing she does is pop in a dish covered in aluminum foil).

American Hustle carries a distinct Scorsese vibe, from its use of voiceover narration from multiple characters — which gives you different points of view on the same situation — to Russell’s plentiful use of period pop songs on the soundtrack (the way he conveys the quiet menace of high-ranking mobsters smacks strongly of Goodfellas). But Russell uses music differently, allowing certain songs to drown out the dialogue in some scenes to make us feel  the characters’ inner states of mind. Donna Summer’s I Feel Love conveys the uptight Richie’s much-needed loosening-up: It allows the tightly wound agent a brief respite of sheer abandon. Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is beautifully used to depict the myriad relationships among the main characters the first time they are all together, each of them playing a facade but aware of the truth. And Paul McCartney & Wings’ Live and Let Die is the soundtrack for Rosalyn’s furious payback for her husband’s adultery (and also the accompaniment for some amusingly angry bit of house cleaning).

Russell has great fun decking out his characters in garish ’70s clothes and hairdos (if there was an Oscar category for Best Hairstyling, American Hustle would be a shoo-in) and he places his camera entirely at the service of his actors, eschewing show-off style for close-ups and zooms that highlight the performances of his ensemble cast. Best of all, the movie pulls a massive con on the audience that you won’t see coming no matter how hard you look, (on second viewing, you’ll realize the film gives you loads of subtle clues). American Hustle is fizzy and glitzy, but not in a carnivalesque, Boogie Nights-way: Russell’s films are more grounded in reality than Hollywood glitter-parties. He just knows how to make the real world feel just a little more heightened than it really is. Like his con artists are prone to saying, American Hustle works from the feet up, and the fun is intoxicating.

Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis CK, Michael Peña.

Director: David O. Russell.

Screenwriters: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell.

Producers: Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 138 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief violence. Opens Friday Dec. 20 at area theaters.