American Hustle reminded me of a scene from another, very different 2013 movie. About halfway through Spring Breakers, gangster-rapper (emphasis on the former) Alien, played by James Franco, bursts into a memorable, consumerist rant. “Look at my shit!” he cries, roving around his expensive bedroom, festooned with gold-plated guns and a television playing Scarface on loop. “I got Escape! Calvin Klein Escape!” says Alien, grabbing a pair of cologne bottles. “Mix it up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice? I smell nice!”
Director David O. Russell approaches American Hustle in pretty much the same way. I can imagine him prowling the film set, shit-eating grin on his face. “Look at my shit! I’ve got Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence – fuckin’ Oscar winners. I got different actors – Adams, Renner, Cooper. I’ve got a fuckin’ hi-stor-ical story here! Look at that shit, mix up a caper story with a screwball comedy; that’s a fuckin’ art piece!” Like Alien’s bedroom, Hustle is tacky, overstuffed, decadent and, at its best, a lot of fun. What the film needs though, is a little restraint, a sense of purpose to cut through all that fancy “shit.”
American Hustle is plenty entertaining when it gets out of its own way and let its actors bounce off one another (often literally). As a complete experience, however, it drags, particularly in a middle act that’s about twice as long as it needs to be. Theoretically screwball comedy, with its breakneck pace and incessant dialogue, should pair nicely with the caper in question – a true-ish story where a couple con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) ended up working with the FBI (Bradley Cooper and his boss, Louis C.K.) to bring down a bunch of corrupt politicians. The problem is that the con is too simple to shoulder a two-hour-plus film. A good caper film – say, Ocean’s Eleven – should zip by, with so many bits and pieces that you lose track of what’s going on and just enjoy the ride. Here, the details are dead simple – present a fake sheik as a potential casino investor, bribe politicians, film the results – but the screenplay explains itself over and over again. All this, paired with a spiralling, zooming, dollying camera that never fucking stops moving makes for a film that’s more exhausting than exhilarating.
It’s clear that Russell’s trying to follow Scorsese’s Goodfellas template here, but at least Scorsese knew when to create that sense of excitement with a roving camera and when to just stop and let the actors do their thing. Russell’s camera seems to be operated by someone doing more cocaine than the characters in the film – even during the film’s tensest, or most emotional moments, it can’t help but swivel and dip (there’s very much a male perspective here: the camera always seems to find its way to Adams’ or Jennifer Lawrence’s barely-contained breasts). It’s occasionally effective, but I’ll reiterate: there’s a need for restraint, at least occasionally. There are some fantastic scenes, nonetheless, particularly when Russell tries something stylistically distinct from Scorsese: I’m thinking in particular of an almost hallucinatory scene in a disco, which avoids cliché and makes powerful use of a strobe light.
The script, in addition to over-explaining the details of the FBI sting, falls into the same trap as Russell’s last film, Silver Linings Playbook. Both films are populated with fantastic actors, but the dialogue they’re working with has little faith in their ability to express how they’re feeling through body language and good old-fashioned, you know, acting. Jeremy Renner, for example, plays corrupt mayor Carmine Polito, but you know that he’s fundamentally a good guy who wants to do right for his constituents and cares deeply for his family because all his dialogue is about that.
Most of the fun to be found in American Hustle is thanks to its fantastic cast. Bale gets the most fleshed-out character to play, a con artist whose calculated exterior belies his deep feelings. He does great work in the role, though I’m not sure his choice to pack on the pounds was strictly necessary. Amy Adams, as Bale’s girlfriend and literal partner-in-crime, is saddled with a (deliberately) unconvincing English accent for most of the film, and I found it too distracting to engage with her performance (which involves a lot of tearful stares). Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent is slightly unhinged when first introduced, but by the halfway mark he’s basically a man-shaped pile of cocaine with a carefully-curled hairdo. Cooper’s scenes with Louis C.K. are easily among the best in the film (they don’t really have a lot to do with anything, and that’s part of the charm).
The most impressive actor in the film is easily Jennifer Lawrence. Her role is pretty unrewarding on paper – she plays Bale’s needy, klutz of a wife – but she finds nuance and honesty in a role that could have easily been silly. She’s simply magnetic, and it’s probably a good thing that she’s only in a handful of scenes, as you’re not paying to attention to anyone but her while she’s onscreen.
There isn’t a great deal of substance to American Hustle. To misquote Shakespeare, it’s a tale of idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. All it really wants you to do is “look at its shit,” its gaudy ‘70s fashion and horrendous hair and braless boobs and suitcases of money. It’s not a bad film, but it’s just too long, too busy to really meet its lofty ambitions. It’s exactly like the scent of a couple Calvin Klein colognes intermingled: you know there’s good stuff there, but it just doesn’t quite smell right.