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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Director David O. Russell travels back to the 1970s with its blaring disco music, garish clothes and big hair in "American Hustle," a tale about reinvention, love and survival featuring con-artists, mobsters and an FBI sting operation.
A fictional film built around the real-life Abscam scandal that led to the conviction of a U.S. senator and six congressmen, "American Hustle" last week won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best film of 2013 and a best supporting actress prize for Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence.
With its twisting plot, viewers are left guessing who is conning whom. But for Russell, nominated for best directing Oscars for his two previous movies, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook", the heart of the film is its characters.
"It was an amazing group of people in a heck of a predicament that I found to be filled with passion," he said while doing last-minute touch ups on the film that opens in limited U.S. theaters on Friday and wide release December 20.
"The predicament is a great blowtorch for the characters and their world. I've come to see that I adore characters who are reinventing themselves, who are the salt of the earth, who are dreamers."
Russell said he felt his other films, starting with "The Fighter", and changes in his own life, were preparation for "American Hustle".
He recruited an ensemble cast including Christian Bale, who picked up a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in "The Fighter" and is nearly unrecognizable as the overweight, balding, small-time hustler Irving Rosenfeld.
Four-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, another "Fighter" veteran, plays his former stripper girlfriend Sydney Prosser. With her plunging necklines, fake accent and furs, she poses as a British lady with banking connections in London to lure clients into the scams.
Lawrence, a best actress Academy Award winner last year for "Silver Linings Playbook", is Irving's ditzy, bored, suburban wife Rosalyn. Bradley Cooper, who starred opposite Lawrence in Russell's "Playbook", is Richie DiMaso, a curly-haired, ambitious but wild FBI agent. He convinces Irving and Sydney that joining the sting is preferable to a jail term.
New to the Russell crew is Jeremy Renner, of "The Hurt Locker", as New Jersey politician Carmine Polito, sporting a pompadour that would be the envy of any Las Vegas Elvis impersonator.
Robert De Niro also makes an appearance as an Arabic-speaking mobster.
"You write it for them," Russell, who penned the screenplay with co-writer Eric Warren Singer, said about the actors. "It inspires me to want to deliver a role worthy of them, which helps me write."
Russell also leans heavily on music, as in "Silver Linings Playbook", to convey emotion in the film. Irving and Sydney connect and fall in love to Duke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues.
A duet to Tom Jones' "Delilah" seals the male bond between Irving and Carmine, and Rosalyn vents her frustration and anger wearing yellow gloves and cleaning furiously while singing Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die".
"That was a crazy moment," Lawrence said about the memorable scene.
Just as hair defined the characters, from Richie's self-styled perm to Rosalyn's cascading updo and Irving's comb-over, 70s fashion also played a significant role.
"It was Halloween for a decade. The clothes were garish and the style was phenomenal to look back on but the people themselves were no different," said Bale.
Whether it is Bale playing an out-of-shape con-man or Adams as a sexy swindler, Russell cast each actor against type, wanting them to do something they had never done before.
"That's really what the whole movie is about," he said, "your backstage self, where you are coming from and where you are going, what you want to be and what you've been, and what you are in the middle for each of these people."
Editing by Mary Milliken and Nick Zieminski