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Considering two big favourites of the movie awards season this year have the words ‘hustle’ and ‘wolf’, added to ‘American’ and ‘Wall Street’, in their titles—both the movies in question, breathlessly energetic stories about greed and opportunism—there is little doubt that even in the current gloom, the American canon of ‘We’re in the money, the sky is sunny’ canon is in vogue, if only for artistic purposes. David O. Russell’s American Hustle, about a group of fork-tongued New Yorkers, trying to outdo each other in chicanery, has a fair amount of humour and satire in it. But the way it is filmed, paced and acted, Russell’s film is an abject, and terribly entertaining, glorification of aggressive conmanship.

It is doused in periodic details of the 1970s, but the common stylistic tropes are underplayed. New York in the 1970s is, of course, bruised and dirty. Crime and street gangs are rampant, there are abandoned buildings in Manhattan precincts, the economic depression has its imprint all over the city. President Ford has refused to bail out New York financially, asking it to drop dead instead. The scale of Russell’s film is intimate; the larger New York funk and despondency are integral to the story and understanding its characters, but not to its telling.

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Amy Adams (left) and Christian Bale , plays the lead characters, Sydney and Irving, who are desperate for money and love

Be it the Irving and Sydney duo, who serially dupes people by promising them loans or Richie, who neurotically manoeuvres his federal powers or Irving’s magnetically lunatic wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), the hustlers in American Hustle are far from the common realism of today. The life-like characters, one being Richie’s boss played by Louis C.K., are the real misfits. Russell’s main concern in the film-making is to build an universe where every moment can be a turnaround, where you don’t know who gets away with the prize the next moment. The ceaseless flow and feverish pitch, set to some great music from the era (although it is Duke Ellington’s jazz that frames the first meeting of Irving and Sydney), make American Hustle a pulp lover’s dream.

Even without enough backstory, Russell and his co-writer Eric Singer draw their characters sharply. Like Martin Scorsese did in his most memorable gangster drama Goodfellas (1990), Russell and Singer give each character a narrative voice-over, with different view points of each other. None of them truly understands each other’s moral universe, and hate and suspicion often precede love. Characters are delineated with small, odd attributes, most strikingly with different kinds of hairdos. Irving has a toupee that is put together by complex interweaving of strands, a comb-over, that seems too easy to unfold, Richie has a curly mop which he styles himself by using intricate curling devices, the idealistic politician in the film played by Jeremy Renner has a stiff bouffant, Sydney often sports wild perms and Rosalyn has soft golden curls dangling over her face. It is a small but effective way of establishing the singularity of each of these characters in the transitory world they are all inhabiting. Or, more effectively, and perhaps intentionally, for fun.

Irving has inherited a chain of dry cleaners and sells art fakes. A small-time gangster, he is completely stripped of the magnetic allure of a mobster and has a tender side to him. “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favour over money. Effin’ Jesus said that as well," he professes. Bale, many kilos heavier, is terrific in the role, drawing out Irving’s power over people, as well as his comical half-heartedness about his missions, and his willingness to listen and give in to Richie, and to human bonds.

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Jenifer Lawrence (left) and Amy Adams in a still from the movie.

Despite detailed oddities like these, American Hustle never really looks inward or makes its point in oblique ways. It has the conceit of a gangster film—an aggression that’s thrown outward, one-liners and dialogue-heavy scenes, and plenty of slow motion shots. But it is essentially an intimate story about lost love and identity, and that’s what you remember it for. Without actually showing the dejection of 1970s’ New York, Russell tells us all about it—through his characters, and with hilarity and mock seriousness.

American Hustle releases in theatres on Friday.

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