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Amy Adams and Christian Bale in American Hustle.François Duhamel

The new David O. Russell film, American Hustle, begins with a shot of Christian Bale's sagging gut, and then moves up to the mirror where he's assembling his comb-over, a squirrel's nest of strands, glued-on toupée and spray, a proudly unconvincing monument in defiance of middle-aged loss. Apart from proving, once again, that Bale – dumpy and balding here – will do anything to prove he's really not Batman, the hair-styling scene sets up the theme of American Hustle, which is about appearances and cons and pathetic aspiration.

The movie is Russell's third backhandedly affirmative holiday offerings in the past four years, following The Fighter (2010) and last year's Silver Linings Playbook. The true-ish script by Russell and Eric Warren Singer is based on the Abscam scandal of the late seventies and early eighties, when a dubiously zealous FBI sting operation brought down politicians from the municipal level to the U.S. Senate, using a convicted con man and an agent disguised as a rich Arab sheik.

The title American Hustle could define much of the movie year: The Great Gatsby, Blue Jasmine, the upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street – all scam movies that call to mind the great unpunished 2008 Wall Street rip-off. But Russell is less interested in crime and punishment than in individuals, and especially actors, particularly when they're working at warp speed.

Bale, who starved himself for The Fighter, has packed on pounds here, bulging in his colourful disco-era suits as he slumps through his role as hustler Irving Rosenfeld with an uncharacteristic vulnerability. There's a touch of the aesthete in Irving's character: He's a con artist with an emphasis on "artist." He deals in forged paintings to sometimes supplement his chain of dry-cleaning outlets, along with a scuzzier operation of taking money from desperate people under the pretense of getting them secure loans.

Irving also has a passion for the buoyant big-band jazz of Duke Ellington, which is his first connection with fellow con artist Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whom he meets at a party. Sydney, a grafter who has her own dreams of elegance, sometimes assumes the persona of an English aristocrat, a pose jarringly at odds with dresses that advertise her earlier career as a stripper.

At some point, we learn that Irving, the would-be ladies' man, jazz aficionado and dashing art thief, also has problem at home. That's Rosalyn, his wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, a baby vamp under a beehive of ringlets, with a semi-neglected kid from a previous marriage. Rosalyn has a fondness for self-help books and delights in stirring up trouble. In a movie where the fizz keeps getting shaken, Lawrence pops the cork in every scene she's in.

The short-form description of American Hustle is that it's Martin Scorsese, the chronicler of New York sleaze and crime, meeting Preston Sturges, the antic 1940s screwball-comedy king behind The Great McGinty and Sullivan's Travels. But Russell's Scorsese references are pure parody: the voiceover technique and flashy editing, the moments of paranoid, slow-motion tableaus. Robert De Niro even shows up as a sour, all-businesss Mafia boss. Instead of one voiceover, we get a clamour of them, as if everyone is desperate to sort out the schemes, alliances and double-crosses that breed like bacteria in a sewer drain.

Ultimately, Russell is more interested in the twitches of the individual amoebas than the larger epidemic. In Silver Linings Playbook, you may recall, Bradley Cooper starred as a bipolar man recently released from a psychiatric hospital. Here, he plays a more extreme schemer, FBI agent Richie DiMaso, who appears to go to the same salon as Ron Burgundy, his hair permed tightly, as though he's trying to keep his lid screwed on.

Posing as a guy in need of a loan, Richie manages to bust Irving and Sydney, only to use them as his dupes. In spite of the objections of his dour agency supervisor (an excellent Louis CK), Richie decides to blackmail Irving and Sydney into helping him in his federally-funded con to ensnare shady politicians. At stake is financing for a massive renovation project in Atlantic City, N.J. The first of several targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner in an Elvis pompadour), as a New Jersey mayor who's just too trusting and ambitious.

American Hustle barely earns our sympathy for this crew of hyperventilating chiselers and marks. Russell earns our respect for the script's puzzle box of tricks, though there's an excess of scenes featuring manic sociopaths arguing in small rooms. Save your admiration for the performances, especially Lawrence, who is now Hollywood's most important presence in front of the camera. At 23, she's proved her dramatic chops (Winter's Bone), established herself as a global-franchise action star (The Hunger Games, X-Men) and, under Russell's tutelage, emerged as a terrific comedienne, scoring an Oscar for her role in Silver Linings Playbook. The character of Rosalyn – a mash-up of Carole Lombard, Lady Macbeth and maybe even Regan from The Exorcist – is by far the most hair-raising phenomenon in a movie bristling with high hair.