American Hustle is David O. Russell’s third movie in four years, and the third to bring him major critical praise and awards attention. I wish I could see what everyone’s talking about: I found The Fighter painful to watch at times, and I recall Silver Linings Playbook mainly as a series of shouting matches. For the most part, the reviews for American Hustle don’t much help me understand. Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail, for instance, calls it “Martin Scorsese, the chronicler of New York sleaze and crime, meeting Preston Sturges, the antic 1940s screwball-comedy king,” before confusingly retracting the Scorsese aspects of the film as “pure parody” and seemingly negating the Sturges reference by concluding that Russell “barely earns our sympathy for this crew of hyperventilating chiselers and marks.” Lacey devotes his last paragraph mostly to a mini bio of Jennifer Lawrence, which seems like an acknowledgement of how the film actually evokes little of substance to write about. And yet, this somehow gets summed up as a three and a half star recommendation. It’s like awarding a dancing prize to the competitor whose feet move the most, regardless that it makes your eyes hurt to watch him.
The film is based, with no great concern for historical accuracy (not that that matters) on the 70’s “Abscam” scandal: a minor-league conman, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), meets a former stripper, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and they become lovers and business partners. The FBI bust them, and to stay out of jail, they help construct a sting built around access to the fake wealth of a fake Arab investor, intended to reel in schools of mobsters, politicians and other crooked detritus. It’s all complicated by the lust of the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) for Sydney; by Irving’s friendship with one of their main targets, a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner); and by Irving’s semi-estranged wife (Lawrence), who keeps getting pulled into events. And needless to say, everything doesn’t end up as it first appears.
In a recent New York Times interview, Russell talked about his creative resurgence, saying: “What’s interesting to me is that every day is a kind of narrative — every day is a belief of how you embrace and live and enjoy your life or suffer with your life. I believe that every movie in a way is about narrative: What narrative is the character telling himself?” In theory, the new film lends itself especially well to this project, in that virtually everyone is engaged in some form of deception, personally and/or professionally, and one might extend that to include the entire 70’s milieu, where the familiarly horrid fashions and hairstyles seem like a collective attempt to escape from something (the movie briefly references Vietnam and Watergate, but doesn’t generally cast a very wide political or social net). But the theory never gels into anything too interesting in practice, seeming indeed like a mishmash of narratives all jostling unsuccessfully for supremacy.
Skill with actors
The greatest component of Russell’s new standing is his supposed skill with actors, exemplified by Bale and Lawrence and Melissa Leo all winning recent Oscars for their work in his films. It’s certainly appealing – and Sturges-like – how he seems to be putting together a repertory company of sorts: almost everyone in American Hustle (excluding Renner, but including Robert de Niro, who turns up here in one scene) also appeared in one of those last two films. You feel his desire to follow the actors in all directions, giving them overlapping voice overs, hitting them with ever more people and situations to bounce off against. But the underlying camaraderie (Russell says it’s “three-quarters known and one-quarter improvisation…a zone of looseness or immediacy”) seems to erode any sense of discipline, resulting mostly in chaotic, affectless performances. On this occasion, in particular, he can’t do anything with Bale’s odd coldness – for the most part, it’s hard to perceive a real person beneath the horrid hairstyle and the weight gain (both vulgarly highlighted in the opening scene). Actors like Adams and Lawrence are inherently more interesting to watch, but there’s little shape to what they do – there’s no sense of discovery, of people being explored or revealed.
But then the whole film’s like that – whether a particular scene is meant to represent a high or a low, conflict or togetherness, it all feels much the same. On his Some Came Running website, Glenn Kenny zoomed in on the film’s artistic poverty, saying: “It’s possible that Russell's movie is sloppy for arguably the best of reasons—he loves his actors, man!—but it’s still sloppy. In a movie that didn’t selectively hit their pleasure centers so squarely, the critics who are proclaiming this the best movie of the year would be deploring its incoherence.” Russell at this point seems like an excessive practitioner of the cliché that’s often bandied around, about ninety per cent of directing being in getting the right script and the right actors. Not that I think he actually had those things down as completely as he should have, but assuming he thinks he did, it feels as if little effort went into anything else (the main unifying ploy seems to have been to stick “American” into the title; here, as it usually is, a fairly transparent grab at unearned significance).
Everything’s a narrative
The effort certainly didn’t go into historical reconstruction: look beyond the surface trappings and the path-of-least-resistance soundtrack (Live and Let Die, Horse with No Name, etc.) and it doesn’t particularly feel like the 1970’s. And it certainly didn’t go into the fine points of filmic craft: everything generally looks garish and ugly, with seldom a moment where you’re struck by some delicacy of cinematic language. As Kenny did, it’s plausible to keep an open mind and to regard all this as deliberate, as stripping away any artifice or seductive prettiness, all the better for us to observe the naked mechanics of the goings-on. But if so, it’s impossible to coherently articulate what any of that actually does for us.
Although it may not sound like it from the above, I actually think the film is the best of the recent trilogy, if only because it’s seldom as actively annoying as the other two were at times. But it doesn’t suggest that Russell’s “every day is a kind of narrative” mindset provides much room for creative growth. It’s as if by attuning himself to the endless delights of actors and characters, he’s blunted his capacity to make any meaningful aesthetic or moral judgments. There are some interesting themes in the background of American Hustle, such as the ethics of entrapment, the relative morality of minor league corruption in the service of the public good and of making an example of such transgressions when the real evil gets away unhindered. But at this point anyway, Russell seems to think that just floating such themes is as much as is required; more than that and they might start to restrict his precious “zone of immediacy.” The film’s another hit, so I guess plenty of people see it his way, but then hustlers are also good at making that happen, at least for a while.