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American Hustle ****

Is it worth $10? Yes

“American Hustle” is a great time at the movies.

Everything about it is fun: The con artist story, the characters, the late ‘70s makeup, hair, costumes and production design, the soundtrack, the brisk editing, the wonderful script and best of all, the great performances. It’s hilarious, dramatic, suspenseful and sexy, and perfectly so in each regard. This is the kind of deliciously cinematic experience true movie lovers crave.

Christian Bale stars as con man Irving Rosenfeld, a seasoned pro who keeps a low profile and never gets too greedy. He’s fine working on his own, but after meeting and quickly falling for the sultry Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), he’s happy to make it a two-person operation. All is fine until F.B.I. Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) arrests Sydney, which forces Irving and Sydney to work with Richie in sting operations.

Richie, it should be known, is an overzealous fool who has no idea what he’s doing as a fake con man. One would suppose he’d listen to Irving in these situations, but Richie refuses to empower Irving in any way. On a small scale this is not a problem, but when Richie attempts to go after a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) and other bigwigs, various complications ensue. Through it all the omnipresent wild card is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he met long before Sydney and is now stuck with whether he likes it or not.

Co-written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell (“Three Kings”), the frequent twists and turns of the plot are expected and logical, all building to a smart, plausible finale that is wonderfully satisfying. And the movie’s funny! The humor comes early, often and unexpectedly. Two small examples: The time period of the late ‘70s finds Rosalyn unsure how to work the new invention called a microwave, and Louis C.K., as Richie’s encumbered boss, tells an ice fishing story with an ending you will not stop wanting to hear.

The film will likely earn Oscar noms for best picture, screenplay, director, production design, costume design and makeup, as well as for at least two of its performances, if not more. Bale, who won an Oscar for Russell’s “The Fighter” (2010), gained more than 40 pounds for the role and shaved the top of his head while growing out the sides, thereby allowing the comb-over to feel authentic. It’s a lived-in performance that hits every note. Adams is seductive and beautiful and utterly convincing in every scene, while Lawrence, fresh off her Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook,” is in line for a supporting nom for her loose cannon turn as the crazy-but-beautiful estranged wife. As for Cooper, who is the least talented of the four but certainly holds his own, he refused to get a perm but did come in two hours early every day to curl his hair. The Academy loves him, so don’t be surprised if his name pops up in a relatively weak supporting actor category on nomination day.

Russell, who also directs, keeps the camera moving and vibrant, and isn’t afraid to inject a bit of symbolism wherever needed: Note the opening shot of Irving in a mirror, suggesting a duplicity to him regarding which side of the law he’s truly on. It’s always a treat to watch him toe the line on both sides, all the while knowing he’s going to do whatever’s best for him, morality be damned. Irving’s journey, and all the wit, humor and suspense therein, is an absolute delight to watch, as is all of “American Hustle.” This is one of the – if not the – best films of the year.

Did you know?

“American Hustle” received seven Golden Globe nominations and two Screen Actors Guild nominations, including Best Ensemble, which is the guild’s version of Best Picture (the other nom is for Lawrence for supporting actress).

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