There is a scene in the first act of David O. Russell’s American Hustle in which con-man-turned-informant Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) are in a museum admiring a painting, at which point Rosenfeld declares that it’s a fake. The conversation purportedly lifts directly from Orson Welles’ F For Fake, but in any case, it highlights the film’s major theme, “people believe what they want to believe,” and a couple lines about not being able to tell the difference also serve as Russell’s mission statement. Similar variations recur too often, and the point is shoved a bit too far down our throats. If this film is good enough, maybe somebody might mistake it for a Martin Scorsese film.
Indeed, It’s filled with gliding cameras, as when Rosenfeld first meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his lover and partner-in-crime who crafts the identity of the British Lady Edith Greensly; pop music punctuates the most alarming narrative developments in MOS shots; the fractured narrative is told largely by Rosenfeld’s voice-over—Goodfellas through and through. The women aren’t wearing white in their first scene and seen in slow-motion, but they come close to it. There’s even an uncredited cameo in which a famous Scorsese collaborator appears as a big-time mobster—stealing the show from the Bale’s third- or fourth-rate impersonation.
The problem is that American Hustle isn’t good enough to pass as a Scorsese film. The voice-over track is perhaps the most overbearing and unnecessary in an “awards season” film since Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Here, effective editing, as when we first see Rosenfeld and Lady Edith making their cons, is an afterthought to holding the audience’s hand. The shot selection suggests continuity (albeit rapid) editing, but the victim and the costumes are different in each shot, which quickly and effortlessly conveys that the con men are doing good business, moving from one mark to another with ease. This would be a good scene, but instead, we have to simultaneously be told how great they are at it. Likewise, the first time we see Rosenfeld interact with his son and his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), we have to be told that he loves his son in voice-over instead of letting the interaction show us, and we are nearly crushed by the weight of Rosalyn’s “uniqueness,” from things like her appearance and speech patterns to, of course, being called “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” While we would not know what that would mean on its own, that it accompanies such an overplayed image tells us everything we need to know—and everything we would have known even if it were not there. So why is it? Perhaps because Russell and Eric Warren Singer don’t write strong enough scenes to simply show us. When a scene is devoted to exposition to moving the plot forward, as they are quite frequently, the plot still somehow fails to make sense, largely because it never grabs our interest and because none of the actors look like they know what they are doing. Perhaps it didn’t make sense on the page, either?
The failures of Russell’s technique go much further. When he isn’t working to destroy good editing, he isn’t editing well at all. Conversations rendered in close-up fail to suggest alliances or trickery through looks in a way that better directors achieve with ease. Equally frustrating is when Rosenfeld or DiMaso tells a story. It starts with something we watched happened until the punch-line was about to happen, at which point we are taken to the telling of the story so Russell can cut back and fill in the gap he created for no other reason than to toy needlessly with structure. Even the choice to open the film in media res, with Rosenfeld caring for his elaborate toupee, serves as a needless dose of flashiness instead of an integral structural pillar. The use of pop music falls flat almost every time, particularly in the cringe-worthy “showstopper” in which Jennifer Lawrence dances, cleans, and sings to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” Here, the caper film clichés are exchanged for a reminder that this is A David O. Russell Film, something we also see when a senseless lesbian kiss serves as a screaming reminder that these characters are very quirky.
Russell’s actors do him no favors: Lawrence tries to be kooky and unique but ends up being irritating and completely unbelievable as the supposedly likable life of the party. Amy Adams turns what should be the character’s most complex character, a woman with multiple identities caught in a love triangle with her original partner and her new FBI partner, into a caricature—and a laughable one at that, as when she howls from the inside of a bathroom stall (the debate of whether the howl should be tearful or orgasmic can never end). Christian Bale, after giving his career-best performance to Russell just a few years ago in The Fighter, looks so lost and confused in his role that his unconvincingness gives way to such manic unpredictability that one can’t help but wonder how far off the rails the next scene will go. Bradley Cooper, likeable and charismatic, doesn’t know what to do without the zany spirit of Jennifer Lawrence to share the screen with.
The train-wreck these performances cause does give the film an undeniable energy, but it’s the kind that makes you roll your eyes and kills the film’s aspirations for grandiosity. The screwball vibe comes through in the most unlikely places—perhaps accidentally more than not—but that David O. Russell insists on treating his characters like David O. Russell Characters means that any kind of thematic resonance evaporates before it even arrives. What the director is trying to say about fraud and deception, identity and image, pastiche and parody, is lost in his mania and his most overbearing tendencies (namely his aspirations for kookiness, as when a scene is devoted to a microwave; his awkward sexual tension, first in a coke-addled party and then in a turning-point scene that takes place in a high rise; his zany and overdone performances, on display throughout), and even his insistence on reminding us of his themes every five minutes—usually through the same unfinished ice fishing anecdote (you get to make and believe your own ending!) leaves us wondering exactly what he is trying to tell us.
The sheer unpredictability of how the film will play out (not the narrative, mind you, but the way the components come together on a scene-by-scene basis, somehow different each time), along with a couple of genuinely strong scenes (the hotel meeting/party is chief among them) that unexpectedly revive the film prevent the ‘70s crime clichés from ever wearing out their welcome entirely, but the film never lets you forget that they are clichés. With so many unhinged and on full display, American Hustle serves primarily as an example of what happens when a director lacks the chops to do something new, so he instead disguises his shortcomings with half-baked pastiche while simultaneously insisting on his own auteur-ness instead of letting it show naturally. As with Silver Linings Playbook, the best metaphor for a Russell film is a train wreck: it’s horrible, but you can’t look away.