Christian Bale squints at himself in the mirror, pasting a lump of hair onto his bare scalp with gel. We watch for what feels like five minutes as he tries to smooth it out, his dark eyebrows furrowed in concentration, a pair of rose-tinted glasses perched on his nose, in a desperate, ultimately futile attempt to hide his hideous combover. It’s a brilliant beginning to a movie obsessed with visual details. Throughout the whole thing, there’s not a single tie, earring, shade, painting or hair out of place; they all seem to meld together in an intoxicating collage of ‘70s euphoria, the bright, faintly oily cinematography courtesy of Linus Sandgren juxtaposed with a feverish, pitch-perfect dreamscape of a soundtrack that features artists as diverse as Duke Ellington and the Bee Gees.
The plot that unfolds isn’t particularly revelatory – it’s basically a heist flick meets an Informant!-style conspiracy comedy with a dash of romance sprinkled in. But as he did with his previous two outings (underdog sports drama The Fighter and mental illness rom-com Silver Linings Playbook), newly Oscar-friendly director David O. Russell takes a traditional narrative and instills it with his own flair, his sense of bubbling energy and chaos that simmers just beneath the surface, turning it into something that feels acutely personal and distinctive. Much like the Coen brothers, he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to bounce between a variety of genres without losing touch with his unique voice. Even though his recent movies have toned down much of the idiosyncratic absurdity that defined his early work, they’re still undeniably his. American Hustle proves to be a fine showcase for Russell’s strengths, from his keen ear for the rhythm of speech and conversation (shown in the film’s witty yet naturalistic dialogue, which zips and pops off the screen like firecrackers) to his affection for the nuances of human eccentricity.