American Hustle (2013)

By my reckoning, David O. Russell has delivered just one fully formed movie – The Fighter (2010). By which I mean the concept, writing, acting and production all seem to be working in the same direction. Silver Linings Playbook (2012) was hugely overrated: sit-commy in structure and performance, with a trite message (the best treatment for mental illness is love and tolerance). (As an aside, I don’t believe he’s done Jennifer Lawrence any artistic favors; on the other hand, he’s probably Bradley Cooper’s ideal director.)

American Hustle has a great premise and starts promisingly: “Some of this actually happened.” It’s a funny line that applies to most movies, at once better and more accurate than “Based on a true story.” This movie seems to be about how we play different roles, fooling ourselves and each other to get through life. Russell uses several narrators in the first half of the movie, suggesting we pay attention to their respective reliability; then he abandons the device and it doesn’t pay off. He also indulges in several inept musical montages, the overworked TV-season-finale trope, which do nothing for the narrative but probably exist to help sell the soundtrack. (I can’t think of another movie where so much good music is used to so little effect.) Russell’s inconsistent adherence to his “who’s conning whom” through-line made me wish David Mamet or Steven Soderbergh had directed. Russell prefers comic – as opposed to tragic – possibilities, and he gets dozens of great moments (particularly, any time Amy Adams is in a lavatory) that don’t really add up to anything more. The movie is entertaining but it’s less than the sum of its parts.

The actors all seem to be occupying separate spaces. Christian Bale impresses in a DeNiro-transformative way, but his conception of the character doesn’t match what the script asks for. An early scene shows Bale’s character as a boy, proactively breaking windows to drum up customers for his father’s glass repair business. As Bale plays it, he’d more likely be caught and ineptly attempt to talk his way out. Likewise, Bale’s character always seems to be an intellectual step behind everyone else, yet the script requires him to outwit them in the end. It doesn’t connect. Bradley Cooper plays a character almost identical to his role in Silver Linings Playbook – without his self-permed hair in Hustle, they could be interchanged. (Hair is a big deal in this movie, doing heavy metaphorical lifting.) Like in Silver Linings, Cooper relies on wild eyes and fast talking and keeps everything right on the surface. Amy Adams does better with her interpretation – her wildness goes deep, and she keeps us guessing at her allegiance while suggesting that she might not have it figured out either. (The script betrays her fine shadings with a too-pat ending; the writers weren’t paying attention to what Adams brought to the table.) She’s also forced to deliver a few clunker lines far more introspective and self-aware than her character should be – a common pitfall when filmmakers don’t trust their audience to draw its own conclusions.

Jennifer Lawrence has serious talent, and she piled up awards for Silver Linings Playbook. As in that movie, Russell leaves Lawrence to her own devices here. She’s spontaneous and moves well but her decisions, like Bale’s, don’t fit the story being told. Another weakness I kept waiting for Russell to explain was her inconsistent accent in Hustle (Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood was spot-on by comparison.) Amy Adams switches from an English put-on to a flat middle-American accent throughout the film, and she reportedly had to re-record a number of scenes when Russell changed his mind about which the character should use in a given scene. Given that, I wonder why Lawrence’s amateur readings weren’t dubbed? Russell might have explained things by suggesting she was putting on a persona, like everyone else in the film.

There’s a funny running joke between Cooper and his FBI boss, played by Louis C.K. (as Louis C.K.); it works because it’s never resolved. DeNiro himself shows up midway through and gamely plays an Arabic-speaking mobster (another missed opportunity by Russell – it should have been a put-on.) The moral center of the movie is the New Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner. As David Edelstein wrote, it seems that Russell is saying graft money is a good thing in the hands of an honest man. What Russell only hints at, and what becomes the most interesting element of the film, is the love-at-first sight bromance between Renner and Bale. They play it to the hilt in the only authentic interaction in the movie, and Russell adds a voice-over postscript to the effect that losing Renner’s friendship (read: love) was the only thing Bale regretted in the whole experience. We believe him, not because Russell tacked the words on, but because we recognize the real thing when it finally arrives.