David O. Russell is a filmmaker who loves the people who populate his movies. His recent films are filled with eccentrics, crazies, dreamers and criminals, all filtered through Russell’s neurotic, madcap sensibilities (or if you’ve seen the video of him arguing with Lily Tomlin on the set of his 2004 film, “I Heart Huckabees,” he’s just an abrasive dick, but that’s another conversation).
His films also walk a tightrope. 2010’s “The Fighter,” 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and even his 1999 masterpiece “Three Kings” all walk a delicate line between genre convention and self-indulgent craziness. His latest film, “American Hustle” was shot guerilla-style, supposedly detailing the crazy antics surrounding the ABSCAM scandal, a sort of sting operation conducted by the FBI in the late 1970’s. I don’t have more information about ABSCAM, because Russell and his stable of actors do not give a fuck about this scandal. Or making an interesting film, for that matter. True to its title, “American Hustle” is about hustlers; con men and women who live for the art of the steal, ruining suckers to fill the void in lives as fake and outlandish as their haircuts.
These con artists are Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, 4o pounds heavier with an impossibly elaborate combover) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, sexy as hell), two melancholy souls who finally found purpose setting up a fake loan office in New York, robbing cash-strapped marks at $5,000 a head. Irv’s a sad-sack Long Island Jew, lonely and melancholy, trapped with a beautiful idiot of a trophy wife named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Sydney seeks solace in Duke Ellington records and putting on the guise of a British Lady with good banking connections.
These two get involved in an even bigger swindle, spear-headed by near-insane FBI agent Richie DiMasso (a miscast Bradley Cooper, doing a terrible Robert De Niro impression), involving the take-down of politicians including Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, underserved) and the mob, and fake sheikhs…and…well…screw it. This film doesn’t care about the ABSCAM plot, or any plot for that matter. Describing the damn thing is an exercise in futility. “American Hustle” is an incomprehensible, self-indulgent, self-amused and completely up its own tacky polyester-clad ass. The slow-motion, constantly roving camera, and wall-to-wall pop songs on the soundtrack are emblematic of a film that tries desperately to be something like “Goodfellas.” Except that film had a point, coherence, character development, and any other compliment one might use to describe a movie that actually works.
It’s inexplicable to me that people find this enjoyable and propulsive, not hollow and tedious like it was for me. 130 minutes felt like an eternity. Why? Because every scene of this film is drained of purpose; it’s just an enormously talented cast riffing on a theme that isn’t nearly as profound as it thinks it is. Hold on to your hairpieces guys, but some people in America lie to themselves to get ahead. And sometimes they feel bad about it. The tone of this review might be condescending, but that’s because the movie was condescending. The director thinks just having his cast wax poetically on the nature of fakery and forging your livelihood is enough to carry an entire film. If “American Hustle” was committed to being a plotless, ramshackle affair, akin to something like another Scorsese film, “Mean Streets,” it might have been easier to sit through. There are plenty of great films made in the ’70s that treated plot like a nuisance. But the film wants to have it both ways. It’s both driven by its plot and it doesn’t care about its plot. That battle makes the movie a well-acted chore, because so many moments are based on plot developments that are so cluttered and dispensed in random chunks that makes “The Big Sleep” look logical. As a result, this movie was numbing, with every moment ringing hollow since it didn’t earn any profundity.
Although this film is the Donovan to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan, some of the actors are committed to this hairsprayed wreck. Amy Adams is fantastic, nailing the sexuality, loneliness and desperation of Sydney, filling in the blanks that the script co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer didn’t bother itself with. Renner does what he can with Carmine, the naive mayor who…I’m honestly not sure what he’s trying to do in this movie. At least he doesn’t mumble and loaf around as the least-convincing Jew in recent memory like Christian Bale does (the Batman voice is now the second-most ridiculous voice in Bale’s repertoire, after the community-theater Woody Allen impression put on display here). Jennifer Lawrence does have a lot of fun playing the screeching Long Island stereotype, but a little goes a long way, and the dramatic moments she’s given at the end of the film feel shrill, like Russell was too afraid to reel her back in.
“American Hustle” isn’t just a wannabe Scorsese riff. It reminds me of why I hate Judd Apatow movies now, its just a smattering of scenes where the actors do things for the sake of doing them, narrative momentum be damned. This movie is an impeccably-decorated jam session with a band without a rhythm section. David O. Russell loves his cast so much that he forgot he was supposed to make a damn movie, not a cluttered, store-brand version of other great films. You don’t get elated watching “American Hustle,” but it does achieve something, perhaps, if a movie about con artists leaves you feeling totally conned.