Monday, December 23, 2013

American Hustle

Grade: 61/B-

I’m a little bit worried about David O. Russell. Sure, the director has come back from his creative and emotional burnout after his still absurdly underrated I Heart Huckabees, and his past couple of films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, both show that it’s possible to go mainstream and still stay idiosyncratic. But now comes American Hustle, Russell’s latest in a bid to make himself a bit more palatable, and while it still feels like a David O. Russell film in parts, it also feels like he’s trying to be a lot of different directors at once. It changes what it wants to be at a moment’s notice, making it the director’s weakest effort to date.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a New York businessman and con man. His partner and mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), poses as an English Lady with banking connections to help him. When they’re caught by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they agree to help him with a con of his own: entrapping other con men, and, as the job gets bigger, a group of politicians and mobsters, in a job known as Abscam (because of the involvement of a fake “sheik” who. The job gets complicated as Richie grows power mad, Irving develops a friendship with the semi-corrupt but idealistic Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), Sydney starts to play Richie before possibly falling for him, and Irving’s unpredictable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gets involved and threatens to take them all down.

Russell’s films are defined by conflicting unstable personalities, all trying to redefine themselves in some way or another, and watching their plans go to hell. Here he benefits from a controlled performance from Christian Bale, a Big Character on the surface and a careful, deeply unsatisfied and (when Renner’s supremely decent politician takes him on as a friend) guilt-ridden. Adams is also good as Sydney, who has to keep reinventing herself to stay above it all.

The film is at its most interesting, however, than when they’re clashing with Cooper and Lawrence. To some degree I can see bits of Russell himself in both Bale (wild guy trying to make himself respectable after his career goes wrong) and Cooper (egotistical, unstable man with a hell of a complicated plan). Cooper is never better than when paired with Russell, who channels his comedic gifts here into playing someone much less charming than Pat of Silving Linings Playbook, someone who’s willing to get everyone else killed in order to accomplish something great. His Silver Linings co-star Lawrence is even better as the most haywire character in the movie, someone who’s not a totally bad person but who acts before she thinks and is equally ready as Cooper to see everyone else fall.

In addition to the five stars, American Hustle features memorable supporting turns from Louis CK (as DiMaso’s frustrated superior), Alessandro Nivola (as another), Michael Peña (as an FBI agent posing as the sheik), and, in a funny self-aware cameo, Robert De Niro as a gangster who makes the whole operation much more dangerous. Russell’s personality is most evident in his direction of the actors, and the film has plenty of indelible moments because of it.

But those moments don’t really add up to anything. Russell feels present in the characters, but the actual con man plot and 70s setting feels less distinctive, like he’s trying to remake The Sting in the setting of Goodfellas without doing anything else new with them. Russell reworked Eric Warren Singer’s script (which was on 2010’s Black List of best unproduced screenplays), and it feels like he’s mostly interested in the story on insofar as he can use it as connective tissue for a lot of bigger personalities. The film never really takes off because of it, feeling like a lot of great scenes and Oscar clips linked by an overly familiar throughline. It’s in search of real direction and momentum aside from a self-conscious and distracting sense of importance.

Russell’s best work (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) was purposefully messy, a lot of off-kilter rhythms that somehow coalesced as a form of organized chaos. This is mostly just messy. His past work was willing to alienate in order to get to a greater truth. The Goodfellas/Sting framework here feels timid and hollow by comparison. Rusell said in a recent interview that all of his previous work was leading up to this point. If American Hustle is any indication, that feels more ominous than promising.

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