Art by Katie Bacigalupi

Given his propensity for on-set conflict, it’s with great surprise to find David O. Russell turned into a reliable hit-making director of the modern Hollywood era. He’s like a Ben Affleck but with a sense of humor. Given his professional limbo that followed the tepid reception to the under-appreciated I HEART HUCKABEES you wouldn’t have been remiss to have predicted artistic oblivion for O. Russell’s future. But alas, it is nine years later and the man finds himself on what will prove to be a three-movie hit streak (in every sense –critically, commercially, and awards-wise). The hoopla that followed 2010’s THE FIGHTER, 2012’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and now AMERICAN HUSTLE shows that O. Russell is firmly in the spotlight as Hollywood’s golden boy. Like I said, he’s like Ben Affleck but with a sense of humor.

Expectation is a helluva drug. Some of us try to go into a movie as neutral as possible so as to not color our first experience with it. Try as we might it is ultimately a fool’s errand. Every moviegoer brings his/her baggage to a film and I am no exception. The name David O. Russell has been on my radar since his magnificent film THREE KINGS and any news of upcoming  projects usually means it skyrockets up the most anticipated movies of the year list. I’ve seen almost all his films and in some way or another think they all have been great. I share this only to communicate that my thoughts on AMERICAN HUSTLE were undoubtedly colored by unfettered expectations. “Everyone does what they have to to survive” is a line muttered or screamed more than once in AMERICAN HUSTLE. If the film was a 6th grade Language Arts paper the quote would be its topic sentence followed by three to five supporting examples for every paragraph. Come to think of it, that ethos could also explain O. Russell’s career path as of late. The more conventional his films become the more acclaim he and they receive. His newest is no exception. 

After a quick, obnoxiously unscholarly search on the Internet I found three definitions for hustle. The first: “force (someone) to move hurriedly or unceremoniously in a specified direction.” Yes, that does very well to describe the film’s direction and script. The second definition: “obtain by forceful action or persuasion” can be used to illustrate the characters’ choices as well as the actors’. “A fraud or swindle” is the last definition and is the most obvious for the sort of genre AMERICAN HUSTLE traffics in. Like most con films, O. Russell’s latest is more interested in the intricacies of the clever plot than humans pulling them off. Through a ton of expository voiceover the film tells the audience that it has a lot of characters who will be involved with finding their own version of the American Dream. In this film, there’s Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, America’s (new) sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and America’s (former) sweetheart Amy Adams among many more supporting characters. They are all in one way integral to the evolution of the story which involves con artists scamming their way into a league that is not their own. Each character represents a different slice of what the American Dream does to people’s minds but I won’t reveal anymore. The less you know about who means what to whom the better. All you need to know is that AMERICAN HUSTLE opens with one of the ballsiest grooming scenes of the year.

This film is a handful of directorial decisions, acting (or casting) choices away from being a memorable Hollywood film. The crux of why my experience with it was off is one of tone. It tells a story full of real stakes with immediate consequences but also wanted to be a raucous popcorn movie for adults. Where the two impulses intersected did not create something special but like Lawrence’s perfume in the film it left a sour taste. Her theory of how the best perfumes smell great but have a tinge of something rotten mirror my feelings toward this film. There are many many aspects of the film that I admire and worked for me but ultimately many key creative decisions did not land for me starting with the big acting choices. Whenever there was a crossroad where the character could get a little more real the decision was made to have him/her go big almost into farce cutting off any sympathetic connection with the audience. The film’s irreverent leanings toward the characters kept me at arms’ length. There was little time devoted to getting to know the characters outside of the  expository dialogue the screenplay asks the actors to shout throughout the film about every 15 minutes. They were short cuts and rang phony.

The standout of the film surprisingly was Christian Bale, an actor I had grown tired of due to his efforts to take the title of “Brooding Master” away from Sean Penn. But he played his character as committed to his con performances as the actor seems to be in real life to his acting. This sort of “lost in the character” quality is probably what drew him to the role. It worked. He made me believe that behind his eyes was not the hot movie star Christian Bale, but tired, fat Irving Rosenfeld. Others not so much. Reign it in, Amy and Jennifer. Bradley you too. Jeremy, on the other hand, did a bang up job getting lost in his working class character. So much so that I forgot I had grown tired of him too! (a pattern?). But no one can touch Bale as his character was the only one with any sort of character arc. He goes from seeing the world as a gray amoral place that runs by dog-eat-dog principles into someone who starts to reflect on the impact of his decisions. Unlike, Jennifer Lawrence who is completely underserved and criminally underused. Her character is the butt of many jokes and a migraine to many characters. It’s a shame since she’s clearly committed to leaving all traces of self-consciousness at the door once the director yells “action.” It’s too bad the film wasn’t the least bit interested in her story.    

At best AMERICAN HUSTLE is a solid twisty-turny plot-heavy fun time at the movies served up in an easily digestible Hollywood version of the mob, con artists, and the FBI. The payoff to the film is to figure out who is conning who and once that came to light the movie left me cold and with nothing to chew on. That’s fine. Being a piece of disposable entertainment is a legitimate aspiration but given O. Russell’s track record and other talent involved, on paper this film had the potential to be something special. The screenplay and pacing were so preoccupied with juggling the plot and many characters’ respective story-lines that it forgot to slow down and let us live with the characters. To compensate, we were given on-the-nose dialogue about its themes and character motivations. This might fill in the blanks but it doesn’t emotionally connect or invest us into their stories.

The film is not without merit, however. Quite the contrary, there is a lot to enjoy and learn from O. Russell. My high expectations notwithstanding, the director gives yet another masterclass at how to create scenes that would be flawless if they could be viewed as self-contained entities. O. Russell is an expert at stitching together shots those of which mostly involve a lot of camera movements. This gives all his films an air of exuberance whose scenes glides when the story calls for it or get manic when it needs to. Shades of Scorsese’s caffeinated days exist in AMERICAN HUSTLE.

That’s worth a trip to the theater.

Final Score: 7 out of 10