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This is FRESH AIR. In the late '70s, the FBI joined forces with a convicted swindler on a scheme to catch politicians on the take. Because they used a fake sheik, it became known as Abscam. Director David O. Russell uses Abscam as a springboard for his new comedy, "American Hustle" which reunites him with actors from his last two films: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, from "Silver Linings Playbook"; and Christian Bale and Amy Adams, from "The Fighter." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: David O. Russell hovers at the top of my list of favorite directors. He captures the messy collision of self-interests that for him, defines America. In "American Hustle," he whips up a black comedy based on Abscam, the late-'70s FBI sting that centered on a bogus sheik and led to the bribery convictions of sundry U.S. politicians.

He doesn't tell the real Abscam story. He adapts it to fit his theme, which is that most of us are busy reinventing ourselves and conning one another. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a master flim-flam artist who steals from people desperate for bank loans.

He and his fellow swindler and lover Sydney, played by Amy Adams, eventually get snared; but the FBI agent in charge - Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper - offers a way out of the net. Help him catch a bunch of bigger fish, and they'll go free. It sounds like a routine plot, but you've never seen it in clothes and hairstyles this garish.

Bale's Irving has the most outlandish comb-over in history - thin strands and wayward puffs glued down and topped with a small, ugly rug. A burgundy, three-piece suit and aviator shades completes the hideous effect. Cooper's Richie is a thin-skinned hothead with tight, little curls. He and Irving spend much of the movie spraying testosterone at each other and competing for Sydney, who effects a bad English accent to fool Richie - whom she likes but doesn't trust.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Richie) You're going to do this because you've got no choice. You work for me.

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Irving) Now, you keep changing the rules. You know, you're getting a little power drunk, Richard. You know, you want to tell me, you want to wake him up?

AMY ADAMS: (As Sydney) Oh, no. I said we shouldn't do any of it, Irving. You know I said that. So now I support Richie. He's got vision. Do it heavy or don't do it.

BALE: (As Irving) I mean, he's the one ruining America, not me.

COOPER: (As Richie) How the (bleep) am I ruining America?

BALE: (As Irving) Because people just got over Watergate and Vietnam, all right? And you're going to (bleep) over all the politicians again? It's just because you want to be a big shot and get a promotion.

COOPER: (As Richie) No. I'm thinking big. All right? This is going to be fantastic. We're doing video surveillance. I'm doing this from the feet up.

BALE: (As Irving) You will never do it properly because you've got too much government attitude to be small and sleek. I like to be a con man, all right? I'm in and I'm out. I was there the whole time. You don't know it. All right? That's an art - become somebody who people can pin their beliefs and their dreams on.

EDELSTEIN: You can hear that "American Hustle" is loud and big. Russell out-Scorseses Scorsese with hyperbolic technique: whip-pans, whooshes, slo-mo, and tacky but great '70s chart-toppers. He winds his actors up and lets them loose. Bale is outrageously skeevy; Adams uses her blue eyes like stilettos. They put everything they have into scene after scene. The movie is like a slot machine that never stops spitting quarters.

Jennifer Lawrence is the wildcard. She's Irving's wife, who's understandably jealous of his lover and doesn't care who knows. Under a high, bleached beehive, her baby face framed with ringlets, she shoves a metal tray into the couple's new microwave - this, after she was warned. But don't think that means she'll say sorry when it blows.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

BALE: (As Irving) I told you not to put metal in the science oven. What'd you do that for?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Rosalyn) Don't make such a big deal. Just get another one.

BALE: (As Irving) I don't want another one. I want the one that Carmine gave me.

LAWRENCE: (As Rosalyn) Oh, Car - I want the one that Carmine gave me. Carmine, Carmine. Why don't you just marry Carmine? Get a little gold microwave, and put it on a chain around you neck. You want to be more like Carmine? Why don't you build something like he does, instead of all your empty deals. Just like your (bleep) science oven. You know, I read that it takes all of the nutrition out of our food. It's empty, just like your deals. Empty. Empty.

BALE: (As Irving) That's bull (bleep).

LAWRENCE: (As Rosalyn) It's not bull (bleep). I read it in an article. Look. By Paul Bredoor(ph). Bring something into this house that's going to take all the nutrition out of our food, and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me.

EDELSTEIN: Who could have dreamed, when Lawrence showed up as a grimly determined Ozarks teenager in "Winter's Bone," that she had comic chops this spectacular? An opening title claims that some of "American Hustle" is actually true - though not much, if you read up. The sting was built around a bogus sheik. But the real mayor of Camden, N.J., Angelo Errichetti, was corrupt to his toes.

His onscreen counterpart, Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito, is a Boy Scout in an Elvis pompadour who talks of using the sheik's cash to put people back to work. So Irving, the man who sets him up, becomes a sort of Judas figure - and suffers for it. It makes for a fine Hollywood climax but once you come down from the high, you might wonder what Russell's saying - that graft isn't bad if it helps cities get back on their feet?

Maybe that is what he's saying. Russell's affections are with small-time con-men, like Irving and the Army heroes in his "Three Kings," who are in the middle of a heist when they decide to risk their lives for Kurdish civilians abandoned by the U.S. In Russell's world, it's the small-time crooks who see what's really going on, as opposed to government suits or FBI agents who don't care about the little guy.

You don't have to buy Russell's moral relativism completely to think it makes for good political satire. "American Hustle" is a bit of a hustle itself, but if I'm being taken for a ride, let it be as rollicking as this one.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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