Before I tell you why you need to see American Hustle, I need on my end to explain why it is not a great movie. A movie with great things in it, yes, but not a great movie all around.
After my own viewing of American Hustle, my brain began to ponder my love for David O. Russell’s body of work and came to this conclusion: there’s a theme that runs through his movies about how something, be it war (Three Kings), the search for the meaning of life (I Heart Huckabee’s), or life itself (The Silver Linings Playbook) is fundamentally absurd, does not deserve to be on a pedestal, and may ultimately be meaningless due to its random ability to completely shift your world on a dime with one act, one new piece of information, one ridiculous coincidence. But, and here I borrow two definitive phrases from one of my new Twitter friends, David Roth of SB Nation (@david_j_roth…follow him), if one Lives Life Passionately and displays a Radical Compassionate Sentimentalism, appreciating the absurdity but never neglecting to care for others, one finds their own meaning and ultimately fulfillment, purpose…their silver lining as Pat Saliterno would call it, or their happy ending, their deserved happy ending, as I would call it.
The problem with American Hustle, a film that now allows Russell to revel in the absurdity of institutions, from government to law to organized crime, while filling it with passion, compassion, and a positive ending, is…
that there’s no drama.
No deeper meaning.
Nothing that makes it a great story.
At its core it’s a fun anecdote or footnote. Not a dramatic story. Because on the one hand, the characters don’t change…all of them (with the possible exception of Bradley Cooper’s Richie) are the same at the end as they were in the beginning, having not altered their opinions or learned anything about themselves they didn’t already know. In the aforementioned Russell movies, and his comeback film The Fighter as well, the characters changed. They were confronted with conflicts which led them to react in ways they didn’t expect. Their views on what life should be altered. In American Hustle, the con artists, the materialists, the ambitious figures remain dedicated to their hustles, maybe with a terrain shift but unrepentant.
However, characters don’t necessarily have to change to make a great movie. American Hustle’s ensemble cast, partly-improvised nature put me in mind of the similar oeuvre of Robert Altman, particularly his two greatest films in my opinion, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville. In these pictures, the characters do not change and nor would we want them to; there is something profound in John McCabe’s dreams and Linnea Reese’s maternalism that represents powerful forces our culture would be the poorer to lose. However, what makes Altman’s movies great and tragic is that these characters are brought down by a society changing around them, with new ideas on how things should be. The society of American Hustle is locked and shows no signs of changing, and Russell shows little interest in finding something intelligent to say about why American institutions are this way, a far cry from Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow’s very smart and very effective probings of dishonesty and secrecy at the root of all we do this past year. The timing makes American Hustle suffer a bit more than it deserves to, perhaps, but one cannot deny its overall static nature, and with that nature something short of pure greatness.
Yet there are three great things in it.
First, Russell’s direction is superb. He turns the most necessary exposition into a kinetic thrill ride with his action-filled shots, bright palette, and masterfully criss-crossing editing for the opening twenty minutes, then relaxes the pace but for the main storyline while staying imaginative and inventive. Two instances. For the central sequence at the hotel gala, the framing and focus combine to form a hallucinatory atmosphere at odds with the comedy. And the mise-en-scene for such a dark, sweaty, sensual film is surprisingly and effectively bright: scenes both threatening (Pete’s interrogation of Irving) and sexual (the bookending scenes of Irving and Sydney) are played in broad sunshine and bright lights continually flash through the darkness…in contrast to the ever-present darkness in the homes, the Rosenfeld villa and the dank DiMaso apartment, where unhappy bonds play out. (Sydney and Polito have brighter homes in contrast, but Sydney is alone and her own master, while Polito delights in a loving family.)
Second, the acting. THE ACTING. The ensemble cast is nothing short of superb, taking characters who are sometimes barely there, fully committing to them, and with looks, gestures, intonations, bring out far, far more than I suspect was ever in any script. Russell’s insistence on improvising the parts may have cost the film its meaningfulness by shrifting the story, but oh, did it give the actors a showcase without being overly showy. Christian Bale has rarely been so empathetic—we grow lovelorn over his complicated relationships and feel the impulses in his brain as he tries to think his way out of his jam—although his Irving retains Bale’s natural assertiveness and confidence, albeit with 40 extra pounds and a combover, a far cry from the lean, muscular Batman or the quicksilver Dicky Eklund. Bradley Cooper convincingly portrays a minimal descent into hell as Richie, a good man, a mama’s boy who perms his hair, lets his ambitions get the best of him and turns into something monstrous. Jennifer Lawrence (who cannot make a wrong move at this stage) is a refreshingly hilarious screwball dream as Rosalyn (“Don’t put metal in the science oven.”), Jeremy Renner is at his most likable and down-to-earth as Polito, Louis C.K. demolishes his small part with his Michigan ice-fishing stories (making Cooper look bad in every scene), and that surprise, dead solid perfect cameo in the second act from another performer looking much unlike themselves…but the lion’s share of my love goes to Amy Adams.
Adams would deserve a Best Supporting Actress Oscar just for the intense bodily control it takes to act while keeping those clothes on her body…but that’s not fair. Her performance is like lightning striking the Hill Valley Clock Tower or the dazzle of a whirlwind disco ball. She mixes the sweetness of her most crowd-pleasing roles with the hard sensibility she revealed in her terrifying turn in The Master and then adds equal strains of eroticism and vulnerability. We desire Sydney but even more, we don’t want to see her be hurt. She excites every positive emotion the audience can feel without overacting. And her ability to switch between Sydney and “Edith” moment by moment could never be taught. Adams still does not have an Oscar, and this is the performance which should finally get her one.
Third, and on the most personal note, the music of American Hustle is excellent. Like The Silver Linings Playbook, it mixes some minimal but melodic incidental music by Danny Elfman with a pop soundtrack, and what is lost by almost completely sticking to the 1970s as opposed to Playbook’s eclectic journey from plenty of Dave Brubeck to Alabama Shakes and Eagles of Death Metal is recompensed with the brilliant Duke Ellington appearance, the fun of grandiose Elton John and Bee Gees tunes, Bale and Renner crooning “Delilah,” and best of all, such an appropriate use of less-well-known songs by the Electric Light Orchestra that when Jeff Lynne found out, he contributed a brand new song for the closing credits that is pure golden age ELO. As lightweight but magnificent as the film it accompanies.