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Russell's solution for American Hustle was to focus more on creating characters than sticking to the facts of the story. In another interview, he said, "If I told you what it was based on in truth, you'd be surprised what was true and what wasn't true . . . what is true about these actual people at that actual time, and what did we fictionalize for the sake of cinema and the story." The characters are what matter most—the story is there to serve their development: "Because I care about what's going on in the people's hearts and use the story almost as a blowtorch to move the emotion of the characters, and to get to know these people, who are really making decisions in their hearts about who they want to be. That's what exhilarates me when I go to a movie."

By that standard alone, then, American Hustle is a resounding success. In the hands of a lesser cast, these characters would certainly have slipped into caricature, beginning with Christian Bale's elaborately contrived hairdo, which we watch him sculpt in painstaking detail in the very first scene. (The whole thing plays a little like Hair and Hard Knocks: The Movie; Jennifer Lawrence's hair is a wonder to behold at all times, surfers dream of waves with the height of Jeremy Renner's pompadour, and we even get to see Bradley Cooper in tiny little curlers.) But luckily, when you put together a cast this good and then let them do what they do best, it can't help but work.

Russell has managed this well in the past; his 2010 boxing film The Fighter (which also starred Bale and Adams alongside Mark Wahlberg and Melissa Leo) was as good a family drama as you could imagine, and last year's Silver Linings Playbook (which starred Lawrence and Cooper) won praise from critics and audiences alike for sidestepping romantic comedy conventions and delivering something truly original. And this is a fun movie to watch, often funny, sometimes hilarious, and a little drunk on its own excess. (The awards bells are already ringing.)

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper in 'American Hustle'
Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Productions LLC

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper in 'American Hustle'

As others have noted, American Hustle feels an awful lot like it was directed by Martin Scorcese, all gritty and flashy and full of mobsters and big accents and quick camera zooms. But what it doesn't have is the gravitas of a great Scorcese film, and that's where American Hustle suffers—it's a con-man film, but we've seen a lot of those. There's nothing particularly innovative or interesting about this one, though when you start watching it you think there ought to be, since the performances are so good. But nope: all proceeds as planned. People learn lessons and get their comeuppance, more or less, even if they get away with more than they should. You can almost guess how it will end. The only question is exactly how and when the inevitable twist will occur.

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