Have you ever seen a movie that seemed so genuinely good, but was in some way a knockoff of somebody else’s work? The guy who made it was so sincere in his methods that the film was original to everybody who saw it. People believe what they want to believe, so who’s the master? The creator or the imitator?
In early December the New York Film Critics Circle stunned audiences when they awarded director/co-writer David O. Russell’s American Hustle Best Picture and Best Screenplay upturning 12 Years a Slave and the surprise festival favorite Her. Despite the countless positive reviews pouring in (a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes), some critics (myself included) are finding too many parallels with the mob flick Goodfellas with a Boogie Nights vibe. But everyone in Hollywood knows copying is the highest form of flattery especially when it’s done well and done right—I’m talking to you, Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, the American Hustle grand scam of corruption, love, loyalty and elaborate comb-overs doesn’t take us to any new levels. It doesn’t leave me wanting more…it leaves me wanting something period.
Hustle is loosely based on the late 1970s/80s Abscam, a sting operation orchestrated by the FBI that led to the conviction of some congressmen and a senator. The film admits up front with a title card that only “some of this actually happened,” and it’s apparent that O. Russell wasn’t interested in relaying the facts. O. Russell heavily maintains his loyalty toward his characters, and how they all con one another to get what they want, because (as he continuously makes it clear) we all hustle to survive. It’s the American way. But for a plot so heavily revolved around Abscam, the greatest con of the film, O. Russell offers little clarity on following what the hell is going on?
The heart and soul of the movie is carried by Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his con-partner mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Rosenfeld is a sleazeball from the Bronx who, as he puts it, had to work from the feet up to obtain a comfortable lifestyle. Likewise, Prosser too hustled from bottom to top to escape her ho-hum identity. Together they get rich by duping Jersey entrepreneurs with their outrageously calculated business deals. The two become entangled with FBI maverick Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who blackmails them into helping him to entrap local corrupt politicians including New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner).
Director David O. Russell has had a Renaissance of sorts in the past few years with films The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle to add to the trilogy of his Hollywood hits. Russell’s previous work includes obscurities Spanking the Monkey (1994), Three Kings (1999) and I Heart Huckabees (2004); movies that ring a bell to memory, but nobody really talks about them. After taking a six year break from Hollywood, O. Russell helped raise his son with Bipolar Disorder while going through a divorce. The aftermath? Three films seemingly back-to-back all receiving critical acclaim and multiple nods from the Academy.
“With The Fighter I was at a place where I was ready to know where my heart and mind were going to be invested. And it became those people. I love these people—the details of these people who live in these ways that are very rich. They are always in a predicament at the beginning where they’re at a place they don’t want to be, and they spend the whole movie reckoning how to get through, and if they want to get through, if life is worth living and if they cannot only survive but feel a passion for life. I think if you do it genuinely, from the feet up…see I would never in a million years think of The Fighter as a boxing picture, I would never think of Silver Linings Playbook as a romantic comedy nor would I think of American Hustle as a con picture. Because every picture, I just build it from the characters.” David O. Russell via NYTimes.com
O. Russell brands some of the most remarkable characters in his films, but it’s easy to get distracted with American Hustle’s characters by their polyester suits, their carefully-constructed hairstyles and obscenely low cut tops. David Thomson from New Republic highlights that even subtle addition of Robert de Niro in a scene felt out of place, “There is also a harshly underlit actor who resembles Robert De Niro, but a De Niro who has uncommon humor and seems to realize that the whole film is a parody of some of his classics. Does he also notice how, from time to time, Bale drops into a cool and casual impersonation of the younger De Niro?” Unfortunately, behind the grandiose exterior of the American Hustle characters, the interior of the film (and the loosely bound plot) is hollow.
There’s also a lot of filler scenes in that seem to float in and out serving no structural purpose to enhance the plot, or make it more understandable. Richie’s boss (Louis CK) delivers some of the most unnecessary scenes in the film that don’t add any meat to the core except to somewhat hold Richie back from accomplishing his grand scheme. When Richie doesn’t get what he wants, he slams a retro telephone across CK’s head, which would seemingly lead to repercussions, but then nothing really happens. Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) plays Irving’s inept, loose-lipped wife who also wastes some time on screen peddling toward nothing—she blabs to the wrong man about her husband’s crooked involvement with the FBI, but right when you think real trouble is brewing for Irving, the consequences are absent from the plot. A scene that demonstrates the futility of the film is JLaw’s character super-cleaning while jamming out to “Live and Let Die.” Like much of the movie it’s an energetic and sincere glimpse at the character, but ultimately serves no purpose.
Despite my countless gripes regarding the film, Hustle offers some spectacular performances, particularly by Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper. As much screen time in the trailer and praise from critics Jennifer Lawrence has received (she’s already won best actress by the New York Film Critics circle beating out the tour de force Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave), I can’t seem to grasp the hype. Although Lawrence may only have about 15 minutes of screen time throughout the film, she still remains as captivating and hilarious as ever. But with that being said, this doesn’t come close to touching her performances in Silver Linings or Winter’s Bone.
I wanted to love American Hustle, and while I fall in the minority with the other displeased critics, there’s no denying that there was a lack of genuine heart that O. Russell’s previous two films possessed. There were no fireworks of emotions that the trailer created, and while it was a fun ride to be on, all it left me with was disappointing conclusions.