Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser are lovers and con artists, working in forged art and dodgy loans. Life is good until FBI agent Richie DiMaso threatens prison unless they help him catch much bigger fish.
This is the set-up for David O Russell's third film in three years - after The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook - and confirms a rich vein of form for the writer-director. Like most films about hustlers, it involves cons within cons, conflicted romances and real danger; like any film by Russell, it's brilliantly written and exuberantly performed, smart, funny and with wild energy.
The story is inspired by a real-life scandal in which FBI agents worked with a conman to ensnare politicians, but Russell and his invented characters create a love story, comic caper movie and tongue-in-cheek homage to a period of consummate bad taste.
With his bad hair, pot belly, velvet suits and cravats, Rosenfeld is a hideous mess, but with genuine charm and confidence, which make him a good conman and romantically appealing. A lovely prologue shows us the blossoming affair between him and Sydney (Amy Adams).
Two people rain on their parade. One is DiMaso (Bradley Cooper); the other is Irving's trashy, pretentious wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce.
At first we assume Irving and Sydney are united in trying to survive. But as Irving becomes friendly with their "mark", the likeable New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), and Sydney seems to fall for DiMaso, there's an intriguing doubt as how things will pan out.
The journey to a resolution is a little overlong but uproarious, involving elaborate running gags and a wittily employed soundtrack.
It's tough to single out performances, but I wouldn't be surprised if Lawrence won a second Oscar.
American Hustle opens nationwide on January 1.