Who would have guessed that the director of Spanking the Monkey would turn into one of Hollywood’s darlings? I certainly didn’t. David O’ Russell has been on a winning streak since The Fighter. His latest film American Hustle racked up 10 Academy Award nominations but walked away empty handed on award’s night. Unlike most decisions by the Academy, there was good reason why.
Russell’s directing is near perfect and the entire cast brings their A-game, but the film invites comparisons to much more compelling movies. With such expectations the risks it takes are not high enough and the con game at its center is not slick enough. It’s like eating a dish made of ingredients that should be great together but are simply palatable. Cinephiles will get a kick out of it, but American Hustle simply lacks the excitement necessary to make it enjoyable as anything other than a master class in cinema.
Pale by Comparison
Many critics have called American Hustle “Scorsese-lite”. It’s meant to be a derisive comment. But I hardly consider drawing comparisons to a master like Martin Scorsese a bad thing. And the comparisons are apt and come award season he certainly competed against Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. It may be true that Russell stole inspiration from Scorsese but the film stands on its own. At one point in American Hustle, Christian Bale’s character points out a forgery that is hanging on the wall of a museum. It is a forgery so good everyone accepts it as the real thing. He then poses the question, “Now who’s the master? The painter or the forger?”
That question can be neatly applied to Russell’s directing choices. Is he borrowing inspiration? Yes. Is his mastery any less? No. And sometimes it is simply a pleasure to sit back and watch the “forger” at work. The problem is that Russell’s final creation simply does not match the scope of his talent.
When the best scene is a cameo you know you’re in trouble. A film like This Is The End can get away with it. A prestige piece can’t. The best scene in American Hustle involves a fake sheik being paraded in front of mob enforcer for approval as part of a larger con. Knowing he needed an actor that would provide a believable level of threat with zero setup Russell smartly casts a veteran of a dozen mob films. When Christian Bale’s and Bradley Cooper’s characters place the fake sheik (played by Michael Peña) in front of the enforcer it is obvious the mobster doesn’t buy the pitch, delivering the very simple threat, “I just hope the other part of this is real. Because we’re real. You deal with us, we are a real organization. We deal with you and we don’t know what we are dealing with.”
It’s an enjoyable cameo so I won’t name the actor. Unfortunately the film doesn’t contain another scene that crackles with remotely as much tension.
An Actor’s Studio
Russell’s other smart move is to cast actors he’s already achieved success with. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence whom Russell worked with on Silver Linings Playbook, both have a lot of fun with what might be one-note characters in another movie.
Bradley Cooper plays FBI agent Richie DiMaso who has delusions of grandeur and is in way over his head in trying to pull off a sting operation using a set of con artists he has on the hook. His requisite scenes with the bureau chief are played to great comedic affect in part due to the casting of Louis C. K. as the chief. Their repertoire including an anecdote that Louis’s character attempts to impart to Cooper’s character repeatedly, are comedy gold.
Playing, Rosalyn Rosenfeld, a character described as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” Jennifer Lawrence gets to be the force of chaos and instability in the film. In one particular scene Rosalyn approaches a group of goombas like a killer whale approaches a group of seals sitting too close to the water’s edge, with the goal of simply inciting a reaction from them and her con-artist husband.
The role of said husband, Irving Rosenfeld, belongs to Christian Bale. This is no slim, trim, Bruce Wayne; rather this is Bale in full used car salesman mode. No stranger to physical transformations for roles, see The Machinist as evidence, this maybe his best acting to date. With no pyrotechnics or Huey Lewis songs to distract the audience (although he is shielded by one of the most memorable comb-overs in film history), Bale embodies the various slimy persona of his con artist character perfectly. Giving everyone around him just enough of what they want so they bite. Irving is both spineless and confident at the same time; and endlessly manipulative.
Irving’s partner in crime is Sydney Prosser played Amy Adams. Both Adams and Bale worked previously with Russell in The Fighter and Adams is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses. She was a revelation in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and very nearly steals the film here. In a role that could have been diminished to a sex-pot, Adams’s character is equal parts vulnerable and tough-as-nails. She sees the inability to cut himself loose from the wife he doesn’t love and how that Achilles heel may well bring them all down. When Sydney and Irving’s characters are hustling each other is when the film is really alive:
For me the biggest surprise was Jeremy Renner. I already knew Renner could hold his own in loose cannon roles like the excellent The Hurt Locker or the underrated The Town. But this was the first film I’ve seen him in without a knife, gun, or bow in his hand. Renner’s character Mayor Carmine Polito is one of the few political characters in Hollywood that isn’t slimy. While the way he fundraises for his community may be technically illegal, he is genuinely attempting to do good for his constituents. He makes the mistake of trusting Irving to his undoing.
If you can distance yourself from the notion that you’ve seen this all before, American Hustle is a film that can be enjoyed for how well it goes through the paces. Even if the track is well worn.