David O. Russell, the man George Clooney referred to as “insane to the point of stupidity” (and who famously called American Hero Lily Tomlin a “cunt”) is one of America’s most prominent Hollywood directors, a savvy businessman, and by most insider accounts, an ineffable lout. What better time for him to rear his head again than in the bleakest month of the year, when audiences fatigued by serious year-end fare need something that projects the most attractive and least challenging elements of Hollywood back at them in a neat, snappy package?
And so his latest, American Hustle, provides the suggestion of thoughtfulness in all the trappings of mindless entertainment: the story is a fictionalized version of the events surrounding a sting operation the FBI ran in the 1970s, and follows the involvement of two low-level con artists, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, through escalating levels of duplicity. American Hustle rounds out the trilogy of semi-inspirational pop art that Russell began with 2010’s straight-laced sports drama The Fighter (TMT Review) and continued with the messy faux-redemption story (and awards season favorite) Silver Linings Playbook (TMT Review). While it’s ostensibly a plot-driven crime drama, the new film’s identity seems overly beholden to the emotional and inspirational dogma of the last one, belabored by CliffsNotes-level storytelling that rears its head unexpectedly like a malfunctioning game of Whac-A-Mole.
In a New York Times Magazine interview, Russell said that “Nothing is really a cliché when you really, really do it from the heart.” And one abiding cliché, which Russell implicitly understands, is that nobody wants to be the one to spoil the fun. So, in a strange confluence of art and life, the same rule that governs the success of the FBI-backed con operation in American Hustle is the reason it’s been praised by critics and will once again give Russell a good shot at cleaning up the Oscars. It’s defiantly fun, from the opening scene onward, when the main characters parade in to one of the best songs recorded by Steely Dan before they really sounded like Steely Dan.
But while American Hustle is flashy and entertaining, it’s also sloppy and inconsistent. Of the four major players, each seems to be acting in a different movie: Christian Bale in a melancholic story of passive self-abuse, Amy Adams in a slick caper, and Jennifer Lawrence in, well, Silver Linings Playbook. Poor Jeremy Renner is completely outmatched as the easily duped New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito — in one scene he sports a sad, lop-eared bow tie that makes him look more like a kid attending his parents’ wedding than an influential politician.
Russell’s go-to solution for covering up these inconsistencies seems to be adding another layer of bullshit, often by leaning hard on unearned emotional connections. A basic example is the incorporation of an Arabic cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” recorded specifically for the film to sidestep the overuse associated with the original — but there are many, many more. For one, an overplayed metaphor about the appeal of scents that include a whiff of something nasty does inadvertent double-duty as an apology for the film’s toxic lack of focus. And the constant employment of big musical cues is part of the problem, trading nuance for the quick cash-in of sing-along scenes that will literally get stuck in your head.
Only Bradley Cooper, as the nonsensically ambitious F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso, delivers the level of scorched-earth intensity necessary to turn a film with absolutely no foresight into a grand, swirling farce, and he nearly succeeds. Particularly in his scenes with Louis C.K., Cooper reaches heights of hilarious, tightly-permed delirium that recall the hard-to-define magic of Russell’s under-appreciated existential romp, I Heart Huckabees.
Of course, the real star is undeniably Amy Adams’s hair, a vibrant mop of improbable volume that morphs along with her character’s motivations and seems to inflate with anticipation every time she enters a room. And that’s mostly what American Hustle is all about: the delicious crassness of throwing gaudy excess into partnership with government expenditure, of creating scenes entirely for the sake of the grand entrance, of making real hair look like wigs (Christian Bale’s comb over was painstakingly created from his own mane and a single strip of fake hair) and putting the one actual wig (Jennifer Lawrence’s) through a hair-whipping dance scene.
American Hustle was reportedly being reworked up until its New York release date, which begs the question of whether all those New York Film Critics awarded their top prize to a different cut of the film (and Adams’s memorable “we gotta get over on all these guys” line is indeed edited slightly differently in the film than the trailer.) Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay, which Russell re-wrote, was originally titled American Bullshit, and it’s easy to imagine the work that, without Russell’s interference, it might have been: a film without the unnecessary voice-overs, and without the heavy-handed attempts to connect the word “hustle” to a deeper understanding of humanity. But that film may also have left out the few moments that shocked this one into intermittent transcendence. And so bullshit begets bullshit, of both sweet and unpleasant variations. Which proves that while American Hustle isn’t perfect (aside from Cooper and the film’s hair and makeup team), it’s a lesson in passive-aggressive salesmanship, making a weapon of its transparent aspirations.