Editor’s Notes: American Hustle opens theatrically December 20th.
Any discussion of American Hustle has to be dense, for there is so much going on in the film that any tertiary discussion would be, frankly, as shallow as some of the early pundits pegged the film itself to be. David O. Russell, a filmmaker who used to make passion projects with several years in between but who now appears to be one of the Academy’s favorite sons, churning out fresh new Oscar bait every year, is actually one of the more ambitious American filmmakers in the biz. Evidence to that statement is abundant in American Hustle, which is surely designed as an Oscar vehicle for literally everyone involved, but vibrates with intense passion – for willfully messy filmmaking, for reverence of the great messy filmmaking of all-time, for every member of this deep all-star cast, and for the pure joy of making art.
Any discussion of American Hustle has to be dense, for there is so much going on in the film that any tertiary discussion would be, frankly, as shallow as some of the early pundits pegged the film itself to be.
Yes, the film is art. And it’s a great deal more nuanced art than many have and will give it credit for. The trailers, which consist of glitz, style, and an abundance of hairspray, exude an air of ridiculousness, like these modern actors are playing dress-up. And yeah, much of the film’s period stylings are outsized, but that’s kind of the point. Russell has been dabbling in gonzo characterizations for years now – it’s only when he’s attempted to fuse that predilection with deep human drama that disconnects have occurred (witness The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook). But in American Hustle, most of the pieces finally coalesce and we can grasp the divine synthesis that Russell has been chasing after. I say “most” because the film is still messy, its imperfections dangling like ragged loose ends. That messiness, though, ends up being one of the film’s defining characteristics. It’s a crazy chemistry experiment, the results of which are happened upon almost by accident. But that’s how pure cinema happens.
To explain: there are certain elements here that are clearly planned. The most overt of those elements is the showcase for these incredible actors. Of the film’s five above-the-title stars, three are Oscar nominees – Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner. The other two are Oscar winners…from David O. Russell films – Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence. This screenplay, by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, is designed to make these heavyweights even heavier, with sequence after sequence providing increasing opportunity to simultaneously reach the emotional depths and the expressive hilt. What’s extraordinary is that it works; these performances never feel like stunts even as they are sometimes over-the-top. Similarly, and perhaps most strikingly, is that Russell’s other scrupulously planned element also doesn’t come off as a stunt: his loose, energetic, overtly reverent style. Paying homage to the whirling camera and willfully anarchic tone and pacing of Scorsese in his mob movie wheelhouse is nothing new for Russell, at least in small bursts. But this film goes the full nine; if one were to only view out-of-context clips, it would appear to be a ham-fisted impersonation. Yet Russell realizes his limitations – he isn’t wading in Scorsese’s thematic territory, nor is he attempting to mimic Thelma Schoonmaker’s breakneck-symphonic editing, which would be transparent. In broad style, he is designing his film as a quasi-homage, but the style doesn’t feel stale. It feels well worn, but is nevertheless invigorating.
Tension escalates as the plot thickens in numerous dangerous ways, but story is a secondary concern for this film. Like the stylistic verve, the increasingly messy scenario is one cool facet of this crazy pastiche.
So, we’ve established what was planned. After that, the rest is based on carefully controlled chaos, since the script has a specific story to tell but is clearly most interested in probing the emotions of the characters that populate that story. And truth be told, they’re all wrecks. Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) has been a con man his entire life. You could call him “big time,” but it would belie his practices, which are to manufacture cons just small enough to stay under the radar and never get caught. Irving appears to be a greaseball with his shiny potbelly and hideous comb-over, but he keeps a lid on his business like a true professional. His personal life, however, is a disaster – he’s carrying on a long-term affair with business partner Sydney Prosser (Adams) while his young wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), barely holds it together at home. Sydney loves Irving but has grown tired of being left alone in bed every night; Rosalyn is emotionally unpredictable and prone to fits, likely the result of years of neglect. All this interpersonal turmoil eventually takes its toll on Irving’s livelihood, as he becomes sloppy and gets pinched by FBI hotshot Richie DiMaso (Cooper). Of course, this is only the beginning of Irving’s story, since Richie has his own designs of making a name for himself – so he loops Irving and Sydney into a plot to bring down government corruption by hatching schemes whereby officials accept bribes from a purported Arab sheikh in exchange for political favors. Pandemonium, of course, ensues.
American Hustle is loosely based – very loosely, in the flimsiest, baggiest sort of way – on the Abscam operation of the late ‘70s, in which members of Congress were specifically targeted for corruption. In the film, the chief target is Carmine Polito (Renner), a New Jersey mayor who truly wants to achieve great things for the people of his city, but is seduced into murky waters in order to accomplish them. Part of the point of Russell and Singer’s script is that, without the prompting of the FBI, some of this corruption never would’ve taken place. Wannabe agency star DiMaso seems the most corrupt of the lot – or if not corrupt, at least guilty of heedless ambition.
Tension escalates as the plot thickens in numerous dangerous ways, but story is a secondary concern for this film. Like the stylistic verve, the increasingly messy scenario is one cool facet of this crazy pastiche. But what makes American Hustle special is what Russell fuses to the material that is uniquely his own – his very specific, very quirky attention to character and personality. If a confidence game is based on reading a person’s wants and needs, Russell chooses to play a game of his own with these wonderful characters. They each have desperate wants and burning needs, and when those emotions collide in the midst of this dangerous operation, it creates delicious madness. The plot becomes tertiary, for the characters each become free agents, trying to navigate their way out with self-preservation. The pendulum of this screenplay swings on the back-and-forth emotions of these characters, beautifully played by these incredible actors. Adams and Lawrence, in particular, are dazzling. Both, frankly, should win Oscars.
The opening tag that flickers at the start of the film reads, “Some of this actually happened.” It’s a funny and fitting admission that American Hustle isn’t primarily concerned with recreating the events of a real-life plot. It is tangentially inspired by a real-life scandal, stylistically inspired to replicate elements of Scorsese, but driven by its own unique pathos to explore the inner workings of conniving minds and find out what happens when they’re thrown into an emotional cauldron.
[notification type="star"]83/100 ~ GREAT. American Hustle is an endlessly entertaining cinematic confidence game with jazzy style and brilliant performances.[/notification]