Think The Sting with bad clothes, worse hairstyles (one particular do has to be seen to be disbelieved, but you don't wait long). Subtract Scott Joplin's ragtime piano, and add Steely Dan, Bowie, Tom Jones and Duke Ellington.
Throw in a comedy ensemble that works like a Swiss watch and a script as smart and sassy and laugh-out-loud funny as you'll see this year. This is what you get.
The new film by Russell, which opens here on the back of well-deserved Golden Globe wins, is a comedy of deception and deceit (they're not always the same thing) that is surely the most rambunctiously enjoyable film of the season so far.
An opening title card's claim that "some of this actually happened" refers to a famous scandal of the 70s but should probably be seen as generic rather than specific, since no quartet as weird as this film's main characters could surely ever have drawn breath.
But Russell, who co-wrote, has achieved screenwriting alchemy here, creating people who are all or some of sad, sick, psycho, sleazy, stupid and unlikeable, and making them irresistible and even lovable.
The film ransacks a glorious Hollywood tradition of caper comedies to make a flick about con artists. It's well trodden territory but con films, even funny ones, always seem to have a dark, hard centre. You've never seen it done with the zinger energy and sheer brio that this film pulls off.
Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a master of a commission con ("$5000 gets me 50, is that right?" bleat the sheep lining up to be fleeced), who joins forces - and other things - with the shapely Sydney Prosser (Adams) to extend his business. (One of the film's early incidental pleasure is an impressionistic sequence of their falling in love in which her hunger and his vulnerability are almost palpable).
It's a very minor spoiler to reveal that their business comes to the attention of the authorities and the couple find themselves forced to team up with Richie DiMaso (Cooper), a flaky FBI agent with a home-made perm, in an assignment to collar scoundrels in public life.
As if this compulsory partnership weren't enough of a problem, Rosenfeld's wife, ditzy Rosalyn (Lawrence, wonderful), is always, either deliberately and accidentally, getting in the way.
For a film that consists largely of people talking in rooms, Hustle is extraordinarily entertaining, thanks to the perfectly calibrated performances - the principal cast are all alumni of other Russell films.
Comedian Louis C.K. as an obstructive jobsworth FBI boss is the best of a fine supporting cast and De Niro has a great cameo as a mafioso.
Its knockabout pace drags us headlong through the plot's tortuous complications (though it's never hard to follow) and just as we think we have the measure of the betrayals and double crosses, everything is upended and we're off again.
The fluid camerawork and dynamic editing and that soundtrack (Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit in Arabic?) makes for a marvellous technical package. It is probably a few minutes too long - but on the other hand I wanted it never to end.
Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K
David O. Russell
M (offensive language)