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REVIEW: The loser takes it all in American Hustle

American Hustle bears the trademark of director David O. Russell, with its underdog movie template

Review Drama

AMERICAN HUSTLE (M18)

138 minutes/Opens tomorrow/*** 1/2

The story: Con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are making money running a fake loan scheme when they con the wrong person: Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an undercover FBI agent. DiMaso ropes Rosenfeld and Prosser into a sting operation to trap crooked politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Inspired by the Abscam (Arab scam) sting operation of the 1970s.

The film opens with Rosenfeld (a paunchy, almost unrecognisably lumpy Bale) fussing with the complex mechanics of his comb-over hairdo. The sight is at once sad, desperate, delusional and funny.

In other words, it is classic David O. Russell, a director who in recent times has established a reputation for dragging the same group of actors (Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Cooper) into the Academy Awards theatre with him with alarming regularity. Bale won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fighter (2010), while Silver Linings Playbook (2012) won the Best Actress Oscar for Lawrence and a Best Actor nomination for Cooper.

Here, Russell (having fictionalised an Eric Singer script that was truer to the facts of Abscam) goes back to familiar terrain, the realm of the foolish dreamer, the loser in the gutter with his eyes on the stars.

In The Fighter, it was a neighbourhood boxer (Mark Wahlberg) yearning for the big time; in Silver Linings Playbook, two mentally unstable people (Lawrence and Cooper) come together in spite of, or because of, their problems.

This film carries on the Russell underdog movie template. It is about the American desire for reinvention, raising oneself from schmuck to someone not just rich, but also loved and respected.

Structurally, it also bears the Russell fingerprints.

There is, for example, a muscularity to the dialogue - characters talk only when they want to provoke, challenge, hurt, interrogate.

That boldness extends to the clothes and especially the aforementioned hair. The year is 1978 and the hairdos are set to only one volume: loud.

Bale's remarkable piece of scalp architecture is matched by Lawrence's extravagant waves, Bradley's helmet perm and Renner's towering pompadour.

This work is much more plot-driven and more ambitious in scope than either The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook.

Russell tries to embrace it all, but fitting in the complexities of the con, double- and triple-con with his love of talkiness and character-building saps the narrative of momentum.

It feels baggy and indulgent, peopled by too many characters. Robert De Niro and comedian Louis C.K. - playing a mobster (uncredited) and DiMaso's FBI boss, respectively - have small roles that, if cut, would not have been missed.

Bale has once again transformed his body shape for a part, for which he will probably win Academy recognition, but it is the work of Adams' funny, vulnerable Prosser, the stripper-turned-fake member of the English gentry, who will win votes this awards season.

johnlui@sph.com.sg