"American Hustle" opens with Irving Rosenfeld doing his hair.
It's a creation that would leave Donald Trump slack-jawed. Part art, part architecture, Rosenfeld's meticulous 'do involves a hairpiece, an elaborate combover, glue and other hair products to create the illusion he wants to maintain.
And minutes later, FBI agent Richie DiMaso undoes it all with one reckless gesture.
It's a scene that sets the stage for what's to come in David O Russell's dazzling, seductive film.
Irving (Christian Bale) is a talented, small-time con man, adept at passing off art forgeries and squeezing out a few thousand dollars from desperate men who need tens of thousands of dollars.
Nowhere are his talents more evident than the women this balding, paunchy middle-aged man is able to attract, from his beautiful, manic wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) to his mistress / partner in con Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
WHAT: "American Hustle"
STARS: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Robert De Niro, Michael Pena, Jack Huston and Elisabeth Rohm.
STORYLINE: A pair of con artists are forced to help the FBI with a sting operation that involves elected officials and the mob.
DIRECTOR: David O. Russell
RATING: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.
Turns out she's just as talented when it comes to passing herself off as someone else and seducing others into making bad choices.
Irving's and Sydney's banking scam gets them entangled with the FBI, and they are forced to help the FBI bring in some bigger fish in order to avoid prosecution.
Irving is a man who knows his limits, but DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is an ambitious fed looking for a big score, and soon their sting involves prominent politicians and, even more dangerously, organized crime figures.
The words "Some of this actually happened" appear on screen at the beginning, and the screenplay, written by Eric Singer and Russell, is loosely based on the Abscam, a government sting that led to the conviction of several politicians in the early '80s.
But Russell clearly is more interested in telling a character-driven story than recounting history.
Comparisons to Martin Scorsese's films, particularly "GoodFellas," are unavoidable here, from Russell's use of music to the reliance on voice-over narration as a storytelling device, particularly in the first half of the film.
But Russell isn't just using these techniques to echo someone else's greatest hits. The movie has an energy and a rhythm all its own, and unlike the Scorsese films "American Hustle" will get compared to, the female characters figure just as prominently as the men.
That's evident from the beginning, when the narration alternates between Irving's and Sydney's characters.
And Sydney is one of Adams' best performances. For an actor who's played her share of sweet ingenues on screen, Adams never has been more sexual than she is here. She's a brainy ex-stripper who realizes her body is a tool that can be both the bait and the distraction necessary for a successful con.
Seeing "American Hustle" and "Her" within a week of each other, it's impossible not to be wowed by her range. It's hard to call a woman who's been nominated for four Academy Awards in the last eight years underrated, but Adams may qualify. She deserves her fifth Oscar nod here.
Lawrence is just as compelling as Rosalyn. The woman can't work a microwave, but she knows just how to push Irving's buttons. If she can't keep him faithful, she can keep him around supporting her and her son. There's something unpredictable and unhinged about Lawrence's work here, whether she's throwing herself into dancing along with Paul McCartney and Wings' "Live and Let Die" or turning nagging and manipulation into an art form.
Like the movie, Lawrence's performance seems in danger of jumping the rails at any moment, but it never does.
Bale often loses himself inside the character, disappearing through physical transformation. With that hair and an extra 30 pounds or so, there's an element of that here, but this is a rare movie where the audience can see Bale underneath the layers in a theatrical, showy role
Russell, who directed Cooper to a Best Actor nomination in "Silver Linings Playbook," continues to push the actor to show abilities that few others have tapped. His DiMaso is driven by equal parts ambition, envy and vanity as the operation gets bigger and bigger.
Jeremy Renner also stands out as Carmine Polito, a New Jersey mayor ensnared in the investigation, even though he is driven more by trying to create jobs and economic opportunity in his struggling town than personal gain.
"American Hustle" has elements of the great caper/con movies, and Russell doesn't hesitate to draw some contemporary parallels to signs of governmental overreach. But the real show is watching a top director and a stellar cast playing off each other fearlessly.