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‘American Hustle’ as perfect a film as it gets

Amy Adams Christian Bale star 'American Hustle.' | AP PHOTO~Sony/ColumbiPictures

Amy Adams and Christian Bale star in "American Hustle." | AP PHOTO~Sony/Columbia Pictures

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‘American Hustle’ ★★★★

Irving Rosenfeld Christian Bale

Richie DiMaso Bradley Cooper

Sydney Prosser Amy Adams

Mayor Carmine Polito Jeremy Renner

Rosalyn Rosenfeld Jennifer Lawrence

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by David O. Russell and written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell. Running time: 138 minutes. Rated R (for language, sexual content and brief violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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Updated: January 21, 2014 6:05AM

Home run.

“American Hustle” is the best time I’ve had at the movies all year, a movie so perfectly executed, such wall-to-wall fun, so filled with the joy of expert filmmaking on every level I can’t imagine anyone who loves movies not loving this movie.

We’re told, “Some of this actually happened” at the outset, and somehow that seems more honest than the usual “based on a true story,” or “inspired by actual events.”

In the late 1970s, the FBI really did enlist the services of a con man from the Bronx to lead an undercover operation called Abscam that included the creation of a fictitious Arab sheikh named Abdul and resulted in the conviction of six congressman and a United States senator, among others.

That’s the foundation for “American Hustle,” but director David O. Russell is telling us from the start we’re going to take off on a flight of fancy. The hustle is on from start to finish, and at times I felt like the mark in a magic act — but it’s the kind of high-level magic act where you’re delighted to learn you just got played.

Russell and his “Silver Linings Playbook” stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence went right back to work together on “American Hustle,” which also features a couple of choice cameos from other “Silver Linings” cast members. They should make 10 more movies together.

In the opening scene, we see Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld engaging in the painstaking and quite ludicrous ritual of putting on a toupee and executing a complicated comb-over. Paunchy, on his way to fat, and wearing flashy clothes even for the time period, Irving seems like a walking punch line, but in fact he’s often the smartest guy in the room, even when the room is filled with FBI agents. It’s another transcendent performance from Bale, making the argument he’s the best actor of his generation.

Irving runs a few dry cleaning stores around New York, but he’s first and foremost a con man, offering loans to the kind of people that can’t get loans from legitimate sources. It’s the simplest of cons: You give Irving $5,000, he promises to get you $50,000, you never get your money and you’ll never see Irving again, and what are you going to do, tell the cops?

Though married and the adoptive father of his wife’s young son, Irving falls hard for Amy Adams’ Sydney, a hard-time gal from New Mexico who has transformed herself into Lady Edith Greensly, a London socialite with international business connections. They team up, and the cons get bigger and more lucrative.

As great as Bale and Adams are, Bradley Cooper steals every scene he’s in as FBI agent Richie DiMaso, a would-be hotshot who curls his hair and lives with his “Ma.” If this guy ran into Tony Manero from “Saturday Night Fever” on the streets, they’d become best friends. Richie’s intense, and unintentionally goofy, but also insanely ambitious to the point where he’ll literally beat his boss (Louie C.K.) to a pulp when he’s frustrated.

After nabbing Irving and Sydney (who continues to maintain the Lady Edith charade even after getting pinched), Richie enlists their help in exchange for possible immunity. They go after Camden, N.J., mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner in one of his best performances), who’s looking for financial backing to restore Atlantic City. Carmine’s a family man, and at heart a good guy whose only real weakness is his willingness to do anything to help his constituents.

As Irving, Sydney and Richie work closely on a series of increasingly ambitious undercover operations, a love triangle ensues. But it’s really a love quadrangle, because remember, Irving’s got that “other life,” which includes Jennifer Lawrence as his wife Rosalyn, who’s bat-bleep crazy but has a death-grip on Richie’s heart, even when she’s getting fall-down drunk in restaurants or inadvertently starting the occasional small fire at home. (Lawrence gives the kind of showy, over-the-top performance that generates Oscar buzz, but I thought some of her choices were so big, even for such a colorful movie, they took us out of the story. Her storyline was the least interesting to me.)

“American Hustle” is clearly influenced by Scorsese films such as “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” but Russell realizes the enormous comedic potential in this story and goes for it. There’s also some genuine dramatic tension — from the intertwining love stories, through our empathy for Carmine Polito and his family, to a meeting with some Florida mobsters in which Robert De Niro makes a 10-minute return to the form he exhibited when he was the greatest and sometimes the most frightening screen presence in the world.

The costume, makeup, set design and music selections are just right, capturing the era without lampooning it. Russell nimbly hops back and forth with a few well-timed flashbacks, and juggles the multiple storylines with aplomb. Just when we start to wonder what’s happening with characters we haven’t seen in a while, they re-enter the story.

This is the kind of moviegoing experience where the credits roll and you immediately want to watch it again to see how all the pieces of the puzzle were put together, knowing what you know now — and there’s a good chance you’re going to enjoy it even more the second time around.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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