At It’s Worst, ‘American Hustle’ Is a Rollicking Comedy

[3 April 2014]

By Jesse Hassenger

In the decade following the release of Three Kings, director-writer David O. Russell completed one feature film: the existential comedy I Heart Huckabees. Other events from Russell’s career during this period included: the release and box-office failure of I Heart Huckabees; the leaking of a video from the I Heart Huckabees set, in which Russell gets into a screaming match with co-star Lily Tomlin; and the commencement and abandonment of the film Nailed, whose production was shut down repeatedly and then for good.

All of this, along with his predilection for material that has variously involved incest, dysfunctional families, and semi-absurdist existential crises, makes it all the stranger that since 2010, Russell has made three hit movies, been nominated for a Best Director Oscar three times, and formed an impromptu repertory company of actors from which he draws heavily for American Hustle, his latest and biggest hit.

If not for the nagging fact that it won none of its categories on Oscar night, American Hustle, now on Blu-ray, would be seen as a career pinnacle of sorts for Russell—and may be seen as such, anyway. It’s probably not his best film—for my money, Three Kings still holds that title—but it fulfills his early promise in a way that The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, good as they are, do not. Because of some aural touches like multiple narrators and a feverish use of pop music, American Hustle has been described as Russell doing Scorsese. But while Russell has probably been influenced by Scorsese, the movie is really Russell doing, well, Russell. It’s an anarchic comedy of dysfunction disguised as a con-artist tale about con artists disguised as strivers. Or vice versa, or however many versas need to be viced.

Russell cherry-picks actors from his last two movies to retell real-life events of the late ‘70s with fictionalized, name-changed characters (as a title card diplomatically and wryly puts it: “Some of this actually happened”). In Russell’s film, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets con woman Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), fleecing investors with get-rich-quick schemes while Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) paces around their Long Island home. Irving and Sydney are pinched by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who wants to use their skills to expose the corruption of Newark mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Only Polito is a mild and well-meaning sort of corrupt; Richie is a self-interested, myopic law-enforcer; and Sydney and Irving have both constructed volatile love triangles around themselves. Overlapping dialogue, overwhelming music cues, slow-mo walking, and a roving, zoomy camera turn the movie into a kind of lunatic fireworks display.

Bale, Adams, Cooper, Lawrence, and Renner are all fine to great actors, so it’s not surprising (though it is gratifying) just how uniformly excellent they are here. Adams gives one of her best performances as Sydney, who spends much of her screentime assuming a British persona, reluctant to break the illusion even when she’s supposedly caught. Lawrence is once again cast in a role that seems designed for an actress a solid decade or so older than she is, and once again takes ahold of it with such force that she forces it to make sense, somehow. Bale is characteristically immersed (and weight-inflated) in his part, while Cooper, playing obsessive and desperate, is funnier and edgier here than in the whole damn Hangover trilogy combined.

Even more remarkable, though, is the way Russell manages to heighten all five of the main players. The costumes (Adams’ plunging necklines; Renner’s ruffly suits), hair (Bale’s combover; Cooper’s perm), and make-up (Lawrence’s darkened eyes) aren’t just outlandish period garb; everyone looks vivid and iconic. “Lush” is the word Russell uses on the Blu-ray’s making-of, and he’s not wrong; scene for scene, this may be most Russell’s most aesthetically pleasing film. Everyone in the movie dolls themselves up, makes themselves as magnetic as possible, as means of aspiration. The camera’s occasional slow-motion linger works because it’s an extension of both how we see these spiffed up, electric movie stars, and how the characters want to be seen in their own stories.

American Hustle dazzles on a scene-by-scene basis, which makes its slight thematic obviousness—characters as much as say, “this movie is about survival and how we’re all con artists of our own making”—easier to take. At its worst, it’s a rollicking comedy; at its best, the characters get so caught up in their own moment that they seem ready to explode into song themselves—a condition most vividly depicted by Lawrence’s housebound performance of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”.

The Blu-ray disc contains over 20 minutes’ worth of deleted and extended scenes, and some of them reveal even more musical tendencies: in one brief scene, Renner gets onstage to sing at a fundraiser, while Lawrence’s karaoke-housework scene is included in full, looking even more unhinged – and then is reprised in an alternate version that has her mouthing along to Santana’s “Evil Ways” in place of McCartney. These bits, along with more serious ones like Bale coaching Adams to “cry British” when she’s actually upset and another tense scene between the two of them that tips into hysteria and repetition, reveal some discipline behind Russell’s self-indulgence: as kitchen-sink as American Hustle might feel, it’s been judiciously assembled. The reel, through its sheer volume, hints at the existence of even more footage; American Hustle starts to seem like the kind of movie that might have been four and a half hours long at some point.

These scenes actually last longer, collectively, than the disc’s obligatory making-of feature, and probably say more about the film, too. The most telling moment in the making-of comes when Russell and company talk about the screenplay’s transition from a procedural to a more character-centered story with a surprising amount of romance. As a fact-based crime story, American Hustle gets a little sloppy with its ins and outs. As a chorus of the kind of desperate characters David O. Russell loves, it’s a delirious joy.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/180461-american-hustle/