* (1 star - Average viewing)
d – David O. Russell
w – Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
ph – Linus Sandgren
pd – Judy Becker
m – Danny Elfman
ed – Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
cos – Michael Wilkinson
p – Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Wingham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm
Years ago, while helping her search for a photo frame, my grandmother showed me a photograph of an uncle of mine whom I had never seen. After briefly scanning the photo, I somewhat nonchalantly said: “I have his eyes”. Without missing a beat or even turning her head, my grandmother said: “I know”. People often surmise that the heart is filled with significance that the mind can’t fully understand, but really it is the other way around. There is so much disarray, both hidden and bare, in every single adult’s life that it’s shocking when the mind can construct a thought that is even remotely sound. Sometimes we even shock ourselves with how much we know.
According the Henry Adams, Chaos is the law of nature and Order is the dream of man. It is apparent by the end that David O. Russell, with his latest film American Hustle, had decided to make a movie about how our unceasing will to survive within a perceived-chaotic world is what causes our minds to constantly fall into chaos in the first place. Unfortunately, it seems that Mr Russell hasn’t cleared his own mind well enough to allow us inside of it.
American Hustle dispatches the mostly-true particulars of the scandalous ABSCAM case, confessing straightaway in a title card that only “some of this actually happened.” Led by dissident, impulsive agent Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, the FBI stage an intricate long con intended to entangle copious crooked politicians, including an unscrupulous New Jersey mayor, played by Jeremy Renner, and a number of avaricious U.S. congressmen. DiMaso has blackmailed two grifters to help him accomplish this rather byzantine subterfuge. Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale and Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, are a couple who have been scheming easily fooled New Jersey businessmen.
Things go thoroughly wrong when DiMaso, against his boss’s wishes (played by Louis C.K.), as well as Irving’s, brings the con to encapsulate the indictment of far more dangerous men than mere politicians. This puts not only the hustlers in danger, but also that of Irving’s son and wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Originally titled American Bullshit, Eric Warren Singer's original screenplay about the ABSCAM case was number 8 on the 2010 Black List of unproduced screenplays. It isn’t difficult to see why: If one is looking to understand the real intricacies and motives of the case, look elsewhere. After 130 minutes, it isn’t particularly clear why DiMaso desired this method of investigation. But Mr Russell isn’t interested in that anyway. What he is interested in is personality, personality within the chaos. And this is American Hustle’s crucial downfall.
It is clear for most of the film that half of it was improvised. Mr Russell, as seen in his previous two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, is a master at guiding his vessel of different acting styles into a unified domain. But here, all the characters are arid. That is, everyone in the film is so baroque - flying with offers, talking on top of each other - that the personality comes not from the characters but from attempted lines readings. The cast is lost in a sea of affectation to the point when I had become so apathetic to what was happening and had become more interested in the next crazy genuflection or bellow each actor could form.
In the end, Mr Cooper and Ms Lawrence come off the best because they’re playing more clownish people. Mr Bale, who put on 40 pounds for the role, I’m sad to say gives one of his hammiest performances. And Ms Adams is so aware of her own brilliance that her Sidney is really quite a thin creation. This was also the downfall of my least favorite David O. Russell film, I Heart Huckabees (though it has its admirers).
Even the look of the film is arid. Mr Russell, working for the first time with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, continues his insistent use of 360 degree lighting and steadicam coverage. They have sought to drain the color and life from the images. Is this yet another attempt at a kind-of restorative sepia 70s cinema? Probably. Is there a reason for it? No. The effect is more like those unfortunate early-1960s films where the color has faded, leaving only reds, browns, and shadows. Dust covers everything and nothing is beautiful. The only beauty that remains are Michael Wilkinson’s costumes, most of which Mr Russell is able to exemplify something with – at least more than with anything else. The costumes create the characters better than the performers.
David O. Russell is a pseudoscientist when it comes to actors and sometimes his experiments can succeed and create gems. One such gem is a scene smack-dab in the middle of the film that involves a gun, a picture-frame and a corded-phone. Our characters stop lying and reveal themselves to one another and it is rather exalting.
I wonder if Mr Russell had made a movie that was more of the frothy party it wants to be and didn’t repeatedly batter it’s socket of chaotic survival, it might have worked. For this subject alone has been tackled several times this year with The Bling Ring, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers and The Great Gatsby, none of which, like American Hustle, completely succeed. But that’s not this movie’s fault. It is, however, impossible not to watch American Hustle and not be constantly reminded of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (unless of course you hadn’t seen it), a film that Mr Russell borrows from even in its use of narration. But American Hustle is not loaded enough to cause a scar and not unloaded enough to throw a party.