Sara Vilkomerson
August 09, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

American Hustle

Current Status
In Season
138 minutes
Limited Release Date
Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence
David O. Russell
Sony Pictures Entertainment

We gave it an A

American Hustle is inhabited by colorful and cunning con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams, playing partners and lovers), a somewhat unhinged FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), a volatile power broker (Jeremy Renner), and a loose-cannon housewife (Jennifer Lawrence). Whatever could go wrong?

This fictionalized take on a real-life 1970s federal investigation into political corruption known as Abscam may not seem like an obvious follow-up to David O. Russell’s 2012 hit Silver Linings Playbook. But as with that film and 2010’s The Fighter, the director was drawn to exploring characters whose inner and outer worlds are both in turmoil. ”These characters, with their flaws, are the ones I fall in love with,” he says. ”For me, it’s always about the characters surviving. That’s what it’s been about the last two films, too — the struggle against your own flaws as well as everything around you. That’s what everyone is doing in this picture. That’s what everyone was doing in 1978.”

Another thing everyone was doing? Rocking serious ’70s style. ”Yeah, let’s get into the hair,” says Cooper, who sports impressive facial scruff and tightly coiffed curls in the film. ”It’s great if you can do something really dramatic physically when creating a character — even with the three hours it took before work every day.” He wasn’t the only one: Christian Bale gained weight, a comb-over, and a slouched posture (”I think it took a toll on his back,” says Russell), while Adams and Lawrence go to darker places (with less clothing!) than ever before. It helps that all four are Russell alumni. ”It’s exciting to work with actors that I know,” says the director, ”and see them flex their skills in new ways.”

Production, which took place earlier this year in and around Boston, was fast-paced and intense. ”It was like being inside a crazy, very loud pinball machine for a couple of months,” says Bale with a laugh. As Cooper explains, ”That’s [Russell’s] MO — big script, not much time. It works great. When there’s that tension and time pressure, you just have to deliver.”

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