Under Review: American Hustle (updated)

American Hustle features a bunch of great actors, a bunch of great actors Acting, a bunch of great actors Acting while looking and wearing clothes that are patently ridiculous, and not much of a story or at least not a coherent one. But it’s a lot of fun. What’s memorable isn’t any semblance of plot but costumes, images, images of Amy Adams’ boobs, Amy Adams’ hilariously forced British accent. In a way, having a surface level appreciation for American Hustle is perfectly appropriate. The film is all about images, particularly the images of ourselves that we choose to present to the world—or at least those we try to present to the world to convince others of our sincerity and intellect—so it’s not surprising that its director, David O. Russell, emphasizes his characters’ appearances over their true selves, if they still have anything resembling an identity left inside, that is. His characters are all liars in some way or another, and their dress and their words are simultaneously central to their conniving or delusional ways and, ironically, their most substantive traits. I’m not sure Russell really cares whether his film arrives with some profound meaning attached. Sure, we all put on an act and we all conceal, but it’s best to avoid dwelling on this too much before regarding what his film doesn’t conceal: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and (yes, I’m including him over Jeremy Renner for reasons I’ll explain below) Louis C.K.

I’ve actually seen this film twice now, and like I said, there’s not much of a plot. Nor is there significantly more to discover during the second go-around. It might help to take note of how and when Adams’ character, Sydney, deploys her fake British accent, but really, it’s not like there’s anything more to get. I kind of wish there were something a little more concrete plot-wise or background-wise for me to use as a reference point, however. First of all, my enjoyment of heist movies or caper movies frequently correlates with the intricacy and consistency of its plot. For a movie about con men (the profession to which Bale’s and Adams’ Irv and Sydney belong, and to which Cooper’s Richie, a foolhardy FBI agent, subconsciously aspires), though, American Hustle evinces little interest in the art of the con or in the procedural details, which are likely quite interesting, underlying the Abscam investigation that is ostensibly the film’s reason for being. Part of this is intentional–”Some of this actually happened,” reads the film’s tellingly funny epigraph—which is appropriate also given that no character in the film seems to be very skilled at conning others. If they’re mostly shitty liars, and their cons only run skin deep, then it’s fitting that we shouldn’t pay close heed to whatever scheme they’re constructing, since it would probably fall apart under any sustained logical analysis, anyway. (To wit, paying close heed might lead you to believe that New York City, Camden, and Atlantic City are all the same town.)

And since they’re all shitty liars, the film’s humor comes from its actors uttering the most vacuous platitudes (“from the feet up,” “people believe what they want to believe”) with the earnestness and grandeur of the Gettysburg Address.* That Adams might utter them like a bastardized Londoner and Lawrence might speak with a possibly-intentional-but-possibly-not bad Long Island accent only adds to American Hustle‘s entertainment value.

*Renner’s character, Carmine Polito, the mayor who becomes the target of the FBI’s Irv-and-Sydney-assisted operation, is most poorly serviced by the platitude-laden script, mostly because he’s never asked to be a scene’s showstopper (he’s not really a straight man) and also because he’s playing a politician—there’s not much humor in listening to a politician breathe a sequence of verbal nothingness in the news or in a movie. The one main character who doesn’t lie and is the film’s straight man, is played by Louis C.K., as Cooper’s boss; C.K. has few platitudes to utter, because his character’s dialogue is responsive to the absurd requests of Cooper’s character, and what’s hysterical is how little he can get in edgewise. Jerry Gergich would understand completely.

Which brings me to my second point: When a movie is focused above all on acting at the expense of the plot, the actors themselves become dissociated from the material. The film’s reason for being, we learn, isn’t Abscam, but these great actors, and the experience is more of watching some of your favorite movie stars rather than actual, living characters; myself, I was responding more to what Amy Adams was doing on screen rather than what Sydney was doing, for example. I think this is partly the reason why so many reviewers have seen fit to give their version of American Hustle power rankings. I’m not immune; I’d put Amy Adams in the top spot.

The same response applies to the rest of the cast—they do their best to inhabit the people they play, and all are dressed at least partly to mask or date in that glam, artificially coiffed ’70s way their standard red carpet elegance, but I certainly never forgot who was performing. (Bale again employs the Method to add some fatty paunch to his belly, an image that makes for an oddly engrossing and gross opening; Bale, Cooper, and Lawrence all sport ridiculous hairdos, best described, euphemistically, to quote from one of the opening voice-overs, as “elaborate.”) Our familiarity with the actors on screen in addition to their considerable talents infuse their characters with feelings, trauma, and mystery where none had existed, probably, in the script. Russell’s zany style—perhaps at the apogee of its zaniness here as opposed to some of his past efforts—grants precious few minutes to development; each character maybe receives ninety seconds each of backstory attention, but the voice-overs and these brief moments of privacy the film affords them are empty and banal, especially compared to Henry Hill’s bitter, mournful, and prideful reminiscences in GoodFellas, to which American Hustle is dying to compare itself. Russell instead directs his film in the style of GoodFellas‘ coke-addled third act, impatiently disregarding set-up and relying on his talented ensemble to entertain. Entertain they can, but American Hustle is entertaining as an actor’s showcase rather than a character showcase, script showcase, or directing showcase. The voice-overs and details add little; I was in the seat for Bale’s combover, J-Law’s fantastic physical comedy, and, again, Amy Adams’ boobs. (Her outfits show off every inch of those things except, miraculously, the nipples.)

That Russell has cultivated a troupe of outstanding actors—I’m happy just to be watching them work—and that he’s ultimately interested in mannerisms and (irrational) behavior outweigh the film’s several plot holes and other weaknesses in the writing. That his spontaneous directorial style—constantly moving camera, lavish period detail, sudden urges to crank the noise up to eleven—matches his characters’ unruliness and restlessness is an asset insofar as entertainment is concerned; no one could ever credibly describe Russell as boring, and the fun his actors have on screen is contagious. American Hustle‘s appeal is broad, perhaps too broad; by willfully discarding source material or historical accuracy, this recent effort lacks the depth and satisfaction in the final payoff that Silver Linings Playbook provided. But damn it, it is appealing.

kyra: I would feel it an opportunity lost if I didn’t comment on this film. Buckeye makes the comparison to Goodfellas, and you can definitely see that what with the opening narration, but the movie I keep coming back to is Ocean’s 11. Both involve great casts having fun, dealing with the heist concept, and ignore the messy details of the operations. In both, we are basically supposed to just go along with the idea that their plans are feasible and work flawlessly because getting into the weeds would topple the house of cards. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. As I said to Buckeye when we talked about the movie, there is no shame in making a really entertaining film that isn’t Oscar worthy. This is the kind of movie that you can turn on HBO or TNT in the middle and watch for a half hour because you’re looking forward to Bradley Cooper trying to learn more about the ice fishing story or you want to see a crazy Jennifer Lawrence almost blow up their operation or you just want to see Amy Adams sideboob. Having said that, these characters don’t exist in the real world. They exist to run cons or heists and live at 100 miles per hour. They don’t have depth to their lives, which is why this isn’t a real contender for Best Picture. It’s just a fun movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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