One of the most valuable lessons I’ve been learning as a moviegoer over the last couple of years is the fact that the best movies are not necessarily all released within a month-long stretch at the end of each year. Due to the motivational pull of “awards’ season”, many high-profile films are slotted for release during the last two weeks of December, so that they may stay fresh in the minds of Academy, Golden Globe, and Critics’ Choice Awards voters as they go about their business of prize-giving in the first months of the ensuing year.
This drive was especially apparent in the final weeks of 2013, when, over the course of a twenty-day stretch, the movies Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and August: Osage County were all given theatrical release – leaving many a Christmastime moviegoer baffled by the choices available, all of which seem destined to garner at least some sort of recognition during the awards season-frenzy, which is already well-underway.
In light of all this bustle, I find it increasingly necessary to think back and recall just how many exquisite movies were released in 2013, many of them discreetly tucked away into the months of April or September: Mud, a worthy coming-of-age story; Frances Ha, a sweet and affecting depiction of a deeply confused yet enchanting Millennial-ite; Before Midnight, an exceptional comedy for grown-ups; and Prisoners, a dark study of American morality and fear. All of these works make movies like American Hustle look silly and wasteful, proof that a well-known director and cast do not guarantee quality – even if they do tend to guarantee success, and prestige.
Set in the year 1978, the plot of American Hustle emerges from the story of Irving and Sydney (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), a pair of romantically-linked con-artists who both long for something greater than what they’ve got, engaging in embezzlement and the selling of forged art under the pretext of a British investment agency, with Sydney posing as the sophisticated Lady Edith Greensley in order to lure in their prey. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) foils their operation, he takes a liking to “Lady Edith” and decides to enlist the two as fellow agents in a plan to catch other cons, a scheme that, once initiated, continues to grow in scope until Congressmen, a Senator, and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey are all involved in a gigantic effort to take down corrupt officials.
Of course, it’s not so easy seeing the plan through, as any number of unpredicted complications – including the Mafia and Irving’s impulsive wife Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence – arise with the threat of unraveling the whole operation, just as a central romantic tension among the three core players constantly threatens to drive each of them to the tipping point.
American Hustle is a movie that fluctuates in terms of its compelling nature, alternately betraying a sense of rhapsodic wonder for and a rather relaxed interest in its pulpy material. The screenplay – based upon the real-life “Abscam” operation conducted by FBI agents (who worked in compliance with con artists) in the late 1970s and early 1980s – was originally written by Eric Warren Singer under the title of American Bullshit, before it was turned over to the hands of writer/director David O. Russell sometime in the past three years, who proceeded to, allegedly, rework Singer’s script into its current, filmed state.
Russell has admitted that he sees the film more as a character study than an interesting story, and indeed, the focus is centered on the three protagonists to such an extent that any sort of contextual evidence of time and place is largely ignored; the costumes and music in this movie are heavily evocative of 1970s sensibilities in style and aesthetics (something that the cinematography attempts to capture as well), but given the focus on character, the outer world becomes secondary as the action remains contained in its little bubble of cons and agents, where nearly everyone’s motivations are in question throughout the better part of the film.
This sort of disregard towards setting would be acceptable if the character study motif were pulled off well – but in fact, what kills American Hustle is the amount of power David O. Russell invests in his players, and how he allows that power to dominate and overwhelm his position and purpose as director, which is to oversee the effective transition of scripted material into visual narrative. One cannot help but get the sense that what one sees in this movie was not thought through before the actors and crew got on set; the incisiveness of Russell’s direction in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) is missing here, as he engages in a strategy of filmmaking that seems very attentive to the actors but rather indifferent to the concrete elements of storyline and meaning. The camera seems to be following the actors around, when the very purpose of movie actors is to serve the camera.
The fact that Mr. Russell is investing so much in these particular actors is also a problem from this critic’s point of view. Neither Mr. Bale nor Ms. Adams has ever done much to win me over; I’ve never gotten the sense that Bale is so much a talented or skilled actor as a performer who is willing to alter his body and accent for the sake of a role, and Adams here displays the same sort of forced energy that colors her work in other movies, such as The Fighter (2010) and The Master (2012). But even Bradley Cooper seems to be a bit off-key, and Jennifer Lawrence almost completely lacks the integrity she had in Silver Linings Playbook – and, unlike her appearance in that earlier work, she looks entirely too young for the part in this venture. The only cast member who gives consistently good work is Jeremy Renner as the well-intentioned mayor, but that may be simply because he isn’t in the movie long enough to have his work convoluted by Russell’s miscalculations.
I do not mean to sound snide and dismissive of this film, but the truth is that American Hustle fails to give the impression of a fully-realized and purposeful work, seeming more like an indulgence in ‘70s glitz and glamour than the biting critique of American greed and material desire that it has been made out to be. Given our country’s current state of economic and social imbalance, this movie and its central themes of avarice and desperation hold the potential to speak across time to say something meaningful about the world we currently live in. Unfortunately, under David O. Russell’s supervision, it fails to do so; it is neither a film about then nor now.
In the film, Rosalyn – the wise fool in this movie’s menagerie of conflicted characters – tells her husband, “It’s all about the power of intention.” That is exactly what seems to be missing from Russell’s film – a strong intention. And thus, the film is rendered powerless.