David O. Russell used to make quirky, individual, movies that critics liked and that were usually seen by about six people (with the exception of Three Kings, for which the presence of George Clooney tempted a few more to cinemas). Now O. Russell has changed tack; he makes much broader more mainstream fare, it's tough to blame him, he's become a darling of the Oscars and seen commercial success as well as reaping critical praise, but I miss the filmmaker he used to be.
American Hustle isn't a terrible film, but it's an anonymous and rather artistically empty one, less homage than a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy; it suggests the original, but is hopelessly degraded when compared to it. The original in this case is, for the most part, the filmography of Martin Scorsese, with particular accent on Goodfellas and the still underrated Casino. At times American Hustle is so indebted to Scorsese that it feels like a film student's final project about his favourite director, the style of the film; its camerawork, its editing and especially its use of music are so shot through with this influence that you can barely glimpse O. Russell behind the camera.
Beginning with the statement 'Some of this actually happened', the film tells the story of the Abscam operation which, according to this film, began with the arrest of two small time con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), who were then convinced to work with the FBI agent who busted them (Bradley Cooper) to bring down corrupt politicians (including Jeremy Renner) and gangsters with a scam relating to funding for the rebuilding of Atlantic City. This convoluted long con suggests another significant influence on O. Russell which has gone unremarked on: David Mamet. Sadly O. Russell isn't as adept at Mamet either at penning memorable dialogue or at playing out the con. What he should really have taken from Mamet's work is a sense that there is always something going on beneath the surface; a con beyond the con we're seeing, but that only comes through in fits and starts, and only in relation to one character.
O. Russell attempts to get American Hustle off to a rollicking start with an opening that introduces Bale and Adams in short order, with both contributing voiceover. The problems are immediately evident; the flavour of warmed over Goodfellas pervades the opening, but worse than that it never kicks the film into high gear, spending a good half hour setting the pieces in a way that just makes you reminisce about another, better, film.
Drawing most of his main players from the casts of his two previous films, O. Russell has assembled a heavyweight ensemble here (literally in the case of Christian Bale, who gained 40lbs for his role). Just as he did in his previous film with O. Russell, The Fighter, Christian Bale turns in a superficially impressive performance as con artist Irving. Once again he completely changes his body and voice for the character, but whether it's the performance, the direction or the rather by the numbers dialogue I feel that I can always catch Bale acting. This may be a character choice, perhaps we're supposed to have the feeling that Irving is always acting, but it's also a problem, because the fact we can often see that he's acting makes it harder to buy that people would be sucked in by him.
Bradley Cooper is an actor I've not previously had much time for, but he was decent in O. Russell's Sliver Linings Playbook and showed that he does have real acting chops in The Place Beyond the Pines. Here all I can really see when he's on screen is Bradley Cooper with an absurdly awful hairstyle (think Sean Penn in Carlito's Way). Like Bale, it's not that he's bad, or doing anything particularly wrong, but just that it all feels like watching someone play dress up. In a smaller part Jeremy Renner does some nice work as the Mayor of New Jersey, but he's sidelined for much of the film and doesn't get the chance to develop as much more than a prop in the long con, which is a pity, because there are interesting avenues the film could travel with that character.
One thing that American Hustle does have going for it is a couple of reasonably meaty parts for women, who can often be sidelined in films like this. For me Jennifer Lawrence's part is one of the film's biggest miscalculations. At times O. Russell does try to stamp a little of himself on the film with a few quirky, comedy inflected, scenes. One running gag about and ice fishing story is rather fun, but Lawrence's broad character and performance unbalance the film for me. Neither the screenplay nor Lawrence seem able to decide whether her Rosalyn (the pissed off wife of Christian Bale's Irving) is messing things up for the scam out of naiveté, annoyance or pure malice. An evolution in her motives might be interesting, but the tone of her scenes with Bale seems wildly off balance and it's tough to discern anything about her personality, and the chaos itself isn't that interesting (it also leads to the film's worst scene, an awful moment when Rosalyn is singing at her son for no reason other than O. Russell wanting a montage at that point, probably because it's what Marty would do).
Easily the best thing in the film, as she is in so many, is Amy Adams. To be fair, her part is a gift; a good time girl picked up by Irving who soon becomes a very capable partner in his cons, so much so that she, Sydney, creates a completely new persona, an English woman named Edith with aristocratic connections. Here is where we see the film's Mamet influence really come good. Adams slips in and out of the Edith character with ease and there is always a sense that Sydney's wheels are turning, that she's evaluating every situation and trying to find a way to turn it to her advantage, either directly or by granting someone else the upper hand. Working with O. Russell does also seem to free Adams to be more daring than we usually see her on screen. Sydney is smart and we see many examples of her using her intelligence to get ahead, but she's also sexy and Adams seems to relish the way she plays that up, be it through her put on (but pretty solid) British accent or her body, which is on near constant display. When Adams is on screen there is always something worth paying attention to in American Hustle, but she does highlight its other shortcomings.
There's an interesting movie to be made about Abscam but I suspect that, rather than this middling Casino with con men, it's a film that digs more into the ethics of the operation and the question of whether these crimes, or any like them, would have happened but for Abscam. American Hustle vaguely touches on this through Renner's character, but never gives the idea much consideration, being more concerned with the caper which, sadly, is just another run through of a movie we've seen several times already.