12/23/2013 01:14 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

American Hustle -- a Mob Movie You Can Believe In

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Where does fact end and fiction begin? In a Hollywood movie, or in a private life? American Hustle is both an example and an exploration of those murky mixes -- an imagined story based on real events, played out by characters masked by phony aliases. These smooth blends of fact and fiction produces a distillation that captures the very essence.

Writer/director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) says his latest movie is loosely based on "things that happened," a.k.a. the 1970s Abscam FBI sting. Russell elevates his confidence game movie out of the predictable genre by including not just the standard cast of casino con-men characters but a couple of con-women, as savvy as they are seductive, as well as some heavy duty mobsters and their supporting political machine (Meyer Lansky's name is mentioned). In other words, it's an all-inclusive American story.

Multi-angle love affairs keep the liaisons lively. Christian Bale plays the pot-bellied shyster Irving Rosenfeld, who nonetheless has two women fighting over him. His partner in crime, Sydney Prosser, is played with seductive smarts by Amy Adams who, while completely ruthless, is also one of the more sympathetic characters. She says, "We all do what we have to, to survive."

But Irving can't pull himself away from his wife Rosalyn Rosenfeld, a classic mob moll who keeps Irving tethered to her domestic lair. Jennifer Lawrence is mesmerizing in this wily wife role that definitely puts her on Oscar watch. Russell says, "I wanted her to do a role that was as strong as the guy parts, and more cunning in some respects." He succeeded. She creates a wonderfully erratic character that in the afternoon throws fits between dusting and at night sashays up to the big boy mobsters with show-stopping aplomb. Her leitmotif of "I'm not stupid," sounds like a dumb-blonde disavowal, but proves to be her particular brand of disingenuous manipulation.

Bradley Cooper plays his strongest role yet as the FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, willing to do just about anything to frame the bad guys and earn himself some brass bars. There's not a whole lot of difference between him as a law enforcement agent and the men he goes after on the other side of the law. With his hair in tiny rollers that turn him into a curly haired satyr, Richie wants Sydney almost as much as he wants to make it big.

As with any good heist, there's the moment when all may be exposed. Robert DeNiro (uncredited) is perfect as the mob patriarch, up from Florida to check out the deal. DeNiro has achieved such stature as an actor that even in this cameo role, he is immediately established as the big boss, the authority figure who requires adherence to respecting honor among thieves.

The story is beautifully plotted, maintaining suspense as it weaves a tangled web with a surprise ending. The characters are flawed and mostly governed by "What's in it for me?" but in the end, human. Even the corrupt Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, NJ, (Jeremy Renner) makes you believe he is on the take for the good of the people of his depressed city.

Russell got so much right in this film, from the women who are as smart and savvy as the men to the wide ties and the slit dresses to the right-on sound track. The only thing that seems off is the intermittent, irregular voiceovers. But in the long lineup of con movies, American Hustle stands out as a measured gem that elevates the genre to an art.