Where once David O Russell came across as a dependably unsprung director, he now appears to have settled into a sort of indie-populist middle ground making medium budget movies with off-key or distinctive subject matter but hitting all the necessary notes for mass audience consumption. American Hustle confirms that trend. It’s a highly enjoyable picture yet it never feels more than a rehearsal of its story, swathed in ‘70s regalia but lacking a really strong subtext or meaning. If it were a wholly Sleuth-esque exercise in twist and counter-twist, that might be sufficient to claim greatness but it doesn’t quite have the smarts to go there either. In that sense, Hustle might be this year’s Argo (perhaps appropriately, as Ben Affleck was in the running to direct at one point).
To some extent, this is kids who remember the ‘70s (well, some of them) at play in their parents’ wardrobe of old clothes. That's particularly the case during the opening section (like Silver Linings Playbook Russell takes his time before switching gears into the picture-proper; generally this is the closest he’s come to outright genre play since Three Kings). The quartet of leads is announced through their hair (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper), plunging necklines (Amy Adams) or arses (Adams, Jennifer Lawrence). Indeed, Russell’s camera fetishises Adams so consistently and thoroughly that it ends up seeming borderline creepy (not that you can’t understand his inclination, but the man clearly has neither shame nor restraint; doubtless he will attempt to justify himself with some claim to period authenticity and how it's all about appearances rather than admitting it was in the service of his boner).
But with a cast this good, it would be a terrible shame to waste them on outward appearances alone. Somewhere around the point Bale’s character develops a conscience over the dirty tricks the FBI is pulling to entrap its subjects, everything clicks into place. The rest of the picture is a lively well-oiled machine, only slightly disappointing with a climax that ought to be a reveal but is a tad on the predictable side. I guess, if you have a con plot, it’s going to be difficult to continually outfox a suspecting audience. And if you’re wearing your target on your chest (or in your title) you’re setting yourself up for failure unless you're very very good.
Russell’s not making it easy for himself either, inviting comparisons to his betters. With references to selling fake paintings and calling Bale’s character Irving Rosenfeld, the director is consciously summoning the spectre of Orson Welles’ F for Fake with its master forger Elmyr de Hory and Howard Hughes autobiography faker Clifford Irving (the latter retold in Richard Gere movie The Hoax). For a while, it looks like Russell may be pulling off an interesting riff on the fake-out, a giddy psycho-sexual version of (the aforementioned) Sleuth in which no one knows what anyone else really feels about each other. But then he appears to conclude this would be too complicated and retreats to more straightforwardly territory.
The “Some of this actually happened” opening title conceit might suggest a more metatextual story than we get although, as noted, the playing-at-being-the-‘70s vibe never completely leaves the picture. In fairness to Russell, his decision to be non-literal about his retelling of the FBI’s ABSCAM operation is germane to the not-quite “everything in that film was fake” conception. it's just there's the impression he could really have gone for it (and no doubt lost a significant portion of his audience). There’s an essential absurdity anyway to the notion of insanely rich Arab sheik throwing his wealth about, such that if you didn’t know it was at least based on fact you’d be groaning at the clichéd movie-ness of it all.
Some of the changes ensure the picture has more emotional heft than it otherwise might. The ménage-a-quatre (or cinq even) between the principals may fail to take on a life of its own beyond Russell’s schematic construction, but the growing unease of Irving, and the knowledge that he is stitching up someone he likes (Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Carmine Polito) is the closest the movie gets to a heart. In terms of their real life equivalents, Irving made no great play to have Carmine’s sentence reduced so their conviviality obviously had limits. There whole ethical side of the FBI’s approach gets short shrift however, perhaps as a consequence of setting up Irving as the one with ultimate integrity (if you can see that even the con man thinks its wrong, what does it say about the forces of law and order?) The conversations that took place about entrapment after the fact of ABSCAM are at least as interesting; they just have little place in Russell’s caper-ish take. One wonders if Louise Malle’s Moon Over Miami, a take on the story set to star Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi that expired when the latter star did, would have adopted a similarly lightweight tone.
Much of the pleasure of Hustle is seeing the talent put through their paces. It’s hugely enjoyable to witness Bale’s comic chops given an airing, so wardrobed in doom and gloom has he been for the past decade. With a truly horrendous comb-over, one Russell lovingly shows him gluing into place at the beginning (it’s all about appearances), and a vocal posture reminiscent of De Niro, the actor isn’t quite the revelation that DiCaprio is in The Wolf of Wall Street – after all, he must still hit all the necessary marks of inner torment – but casting people might no longer be limiting him to morbid exercises in self-disintegration. Typically, Bale goes all method with a big belly and a shortage of follicles One might argue such lengths are not really in the spirit of Russell’s delirious deceit (wouldn’t an occasionally obvious bald cap add an extra layer to the whole thing, one Orson Welles might be proud of?)
Cooper, as canny but not nearly sly enough FBI agent Richie DiMaso who forces Irving and Adams’ Sydney Prosser to work for the bureau, has the less colourful part, which is probably why he went for the perm (and probably partly because he felt the need to compete with Bale). He’s not the revelation he was in his previous Russell outing, but his back-and-forth with unforthcoming immediate superior Thorsen (Louis C. K., sublime) is hilarious.
Adams has been positioned by Russell to receive the most shallow of plaudits, but she’s so good in every role she takes she makes it look easy. During the early stages it seems as if Sydney will be pivotal in the “who feels what for whom” interplay, and for a while she is. But Russell slightly lets the side down when Sydney is finally reduced to Irving’s supporting player.
As for Lawrence, I’ve heard a few criticisms of her facility with a New Jersey accent but I honestly have no idea about its authenticity or otherwise. What’s abundantly clear is that she steals the movie every time she appears. True, the character is a gift; loud, shallow, and able to wrap Irving around her little finger, Rosalyn’s every pronouncement is comedy gold (and then there’s her encounter with the science oven). The highlight comes late in the proceedings, when she informs Irving, who has just been subjected to near strangulation and suffocation by her mobster boyfriend, that if she hadn’t inadvertently got him into trouble he would never have come up with a plan; if it wasn’t for her shooting her mouth off they wouldn’t have knocked some sense into him. Irving has to give up in the face of such impenetrable logic.
The rest of the cast are a marvellous assembly also; it’s no coincidence that Russell’s last two films have seen Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. He clearly has a facility, not that you’d think the guy who nearly got clobbered by Clooney and was recorded screaming at Lilly Tomlin on I Heart Huckabees would come to be known as an actors’ director. Renner’s mayor is very much played straight, and the actor is typically solid; his only outrageous aspect is an astonishing bouffant. Perhaps the script’s talk of Atlantic City got Russell watching Boardwalk Empire, as both Shea Whigham (this guy is everywhere suddenly) and Jack Huston make memorable appearances (Whigham’s hair especially so; yes, everyone has special hair). Michael Pena is very funny, mostly by saying nothing at all, as a Mexican FBI guy posing as Sheik Abdullah. Alessandro Nivola, who I’d completely forgotten about and couldn’t even place, has great fun as the boss of Richie’s boss. Then there’s De Niro himself, who I’ll mention here as this is a spoiler review. He plays mob guy Victor Tellegio and, if his mafia persona is tried and tested, he still gets a big laugh for revealing an unexpected skillset. If this were the De Niro of yesteryear I suspect he’d have learnt the entire language for a five-minute scene but more likely he’s mellowed a bit. I still can’t decide if he shaved his head, wore a cap or is actually bald, though. See how the hair conversation takes over from the content. That’s illustrative of the trap Russell has fallen into here.
The director’s all over the soundtrack with readily recognisable cues too, from Donna Summer down the disco to Live and Let Die (Lawrence cutting loose to particularly mirthful effect). It's the surface details that count most. This isn’t a subtle movie, and the exaggerated performances confirm everyone knows that. But there are occasions when the most obvious choices might not have been the best ones if you don’t want your movie looking like a greatest hits medley of the ‘70s.
Will this be another ‘70s-set Oscar darling come March 2? With 10 nominations and a litter of prior garlands it’s probably the obvious crowd-pleasing choice. But it’s also an uninspired one. For all The Wolf of Wall Street’s deficiencies, it comes out ahead of Hustle. I’ve seen six of the nine nominees so far and, while they’ve all been good movies, none have been classics-in-waiting (which is what you want from a Best Picture winner, even if it rarely happens in practice). Bale won’t get Actor, Adams will probably lose to Blanchett, Cooper doesn’t have a chance and if Lawrence hadn’t picked up a gong last year I’d say she was odds-on. Russell won’t get director, but he might get Original Screenplay.
American Hustle is much too larky to leaving any lasting impression, thematic or otherwise, but it’s so confident you can’t help but be enthused and impressed. I’d much rather have this or Argo as standard yearly confections with a sprinkling of substance. They may be ‘70s-lite (in terms of aping that era of cinema’s approach to subject matter and storytelling), and as such they are popcorn flicks the way an Altman or Lumet movie wasn’t, but they are superior popcorn flicks.