By R. David
Viewed December 20, 2013
I recently watched David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” for the first time in maybe nearly a decade. Russell has been making movies since 1994 and has moved into the upper Escalon of acclaimed Hollywood filmmakers over the last few years with Oscar-adorned dramas like 2010’s “The Fighter” and 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook”. But re-watching 1999’s magnificent (and even for all of its adoring reviews, still relatively underrated) “Three Kings” again, it becomes clear that his ascension to mainstream acclaim has come at the expense of diluting his Independent Film spirit and his penchant towards fearless unconventionality. “Three Kings” was an indie film masquerading as Hollywood crowd-pleaser. With its big-name cast and big-budget aura, Russell was able to slyly insert enough quirky dialog and idiosyncratic filmmaking techniques to please the masses as well as art-house crowds. The result was a breath of fresh air and a wholly unique film-going experience.
Russell has consistently brought an indie temperament to each of his projects since “Three Kings”, but they have progressively proved to lack the same gutsy earnestness that made “Kings” so invigorating. These days, his air of free-spirit filmatism and peculiar dialog feel more like calculated efforts to distract critics from his increasingly conventional takes on tried and true genre exercises. What, for instance, was “The Fighter” if not a conventional Hollywood underdog story and traditional Hollywood biopic? Albeit, a terrifically acted and written one; but typical none the less. “Silver Linings Playbook” also had its fair share of excellent performances and juicy dialog, but did it not play out like every romantic dramedy of its type?
Never though has Russell’s attempt to convince us he’s still an original filmmaker despite channeling his voice through archetypical molds been more obvious than in his latest work, “American Hustle”. With hardly-subtle nods to Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”-style camera work and voice-over tactics, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”-like era-specific exuberance, Russell no doubt sought to create a film achieving those director’s classic’s style and distinctive energy, but also added his own distinctive voice to the proceedings. Alas, “American Hustle” rings too slight to stand alongside Russell’s obvious inspirations.
Like all of Russell’s work, the performances here and his witty, unpredictable outbursts of scrappy, honest dialog cannot be faulted. “American Hustle” is an extremely well-acted film, and often a deliriously juicy gab fest. But, for a movie about con-artists trying to outsmart the mob, the FBI, other con artists and potentially each other – where their freedom and perhaps their lives hang in the balance – the stakes never feel particularly high for any of the characters here. “American Hustle” simply lacks the suspense, energy and excitement it seems to assume it has. But it’s not for lack of effort on the casts’ part.
Christian Bale stars Irving Rosenfeld, an idealistic, 1970s con artist who would have a perfectly comfortable and happy life with wife Jennifer Lawrence (giving a live wire performance in a relatively small role), his adoptive son, their house in the suburbs and his successful chain of New York Laundromats. But Irving cannot simply settle for “good enough”. He also employs two-bit schemes involving non-existent loans and forged paintings, because he is a con artist at heart, with an emphasis on the artistry. It’s not simply the money that gets Irving off (though he is working through some childhood drama where he swore he’d never have to want for anything ever again), but the idea that he is the smartest guy in the room. Paunchy and balding with a bad comb-over, his confident demeanor and shrewd knowledge of business, financial and legal theories make him a successful conman, as well as irresistible to Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a wannabe actress with a similarly desperate upbringing who is attracted to Irving’s intelligence, confident swagger, and exciting lifestyle despite his physical shortcomings. He recruits her into his world of fraud and deception and with her sultry grace added to Irving’s convincing schemes, the two become wildly successful and fall madly in love. But when they get pinched by Bradley Cooper’s ambitious but wildly insecure FBI agent Richie DiMaso, they are given the choice of working for him to bring down an idealistic congressman (Jeremy Renner) or go to jail. But things get complicated when DiMaso develops and attraction to Sydney, the mob becomes involved, and Irving’s nutty wife threatens to expose that he and Sydney are working as FBI informants.
This all should make for a zestfully entertaining and often suspenseful bit of pulp true crime. And there are moments when that is precisely what “American Hustle” achieves. But those moments are mostly early on, and then few and far between. Bale (who won an Oscar under Russell’s direction for “The Fighter”) and Adams in particular are both excellent (though the entire cast shines mightily), but their performances do more the film that it does for their characters. The two simply move from one plot point to the next, trying their best to struggle upstream against a script that seems to have no forward momentum. “American Hustle” is presumably building to a climax in which everyone either gets their comeuppance or – better yet – the twists and turns of all the different parallel cons lead to some unexpected surprises. But despite all of “American Hustle’s” style and attitude, it couldn’t be more ordinary. Like Irving, the movie tries to play up its considerable swagger and interesting little idiosyncrasies to mask its plain, bloated true self.
Russell still maintains a reliably strong eye for style, and his visual flair and arresting camera angles are often sublime. And as a writer he has the ability to enthrall as he puts his characters through all sorts of verbal gymnastics. But era-specific fashions, hair styles and other details only serve as entertainment by themselves for so long. Sooner or later a movie has to live and die by its actual story and plot developments, and unfortunately, in this department, “American Hustle” is thoroughly marginal and frustratingly monotonous. You can’t ignore the terrific performances, but that they are so good only further underscores how disappointing it is that the rest of the film is so lacking in grit, focus, and originality.
And that’s the most upsetting con of all.
2½ Stars (Out of 4)