Everyone Hustles To Survive
David O. Russell
Following the bad press David O. Russell received regarding his directing techniques (screaming at actors throughout production of I Heart Huckabees), he’s managed to re-establish himself as a credible force with the immensely successful The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. His next feature reunited a lot of individuals who appeared in both movies and promised to be a raucous, glitzy, period con film. Upon its initial release in the States, American Hustle received almost unanimous praise in its acting, execution and story; an energetic character study coated in a thick, multi-layered, revolving story. For me, that’s how I would describe Goodfellas, so you can imagine my disappointment with this bland, bloated and frankly botched mess.
The story recreates the FBI’s ABSCAM entrapment, which lured various political figures into a scheme whereby they receive millions of dollars in exchange for bending immigration rules and unknowingly getting in bed with gangsters. That part of the story is fairly factual, everything else is more of an elaborate caricature. The chronological story opens with the introduction of seasoned conman Irving Rosenfeld [Bale], who meets and falls for Sydney Prosser [Adams], an ex-stripper trying to make a new life for herself. The two partner up and proceed to con desperate people out of their hard-earned money. In order to complete their duplicitous image, Prosser adopts the new identity of enigmatic British aristocrat named Lady Edith Greensley (with a fairly trite English accent, I might add). Despite his business and sexual relationship with Prosser/Greensley, Rosenfeld is in fact married to the highly erratic and thoroughly unstable Rosalyn [Lawrence] and adopted her young son. After a successful run, both are caught by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso [Cooper], who is eager to work his way up the hierarchy. As such, he immediately partners up with the two hustlers, in the hope of pursuing big-name arrests. Their initial target is the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito [Renner]. Polito is trying to get Atlantic City renovated but needs financial backing to get building started, establish jobs for the people of New Jersey and bring big business to the community. Utilising this, DiMaso sets up a phony investor in the form of an Arab Sheik, who will invest millions. Believing his job is done, Rosenfeld tries to back out, only to have DiMaso reveal he wants more investors and a bigger expose on corrupt politicians, using Rosenfeld’s family as leverage.
David O. Russell has stated in the past that he hates plot and feels the focus of a film should be character. It has also been well published that the majority of the performances in this film were improvisational. I have two problems with this. One, writers are smarter than actors. While there will always be a handful of incredible individuals, capable of producing some exceptional ad-libbing and improv (Brando and Nicholson spring to mind), they don’t have the coherent mindset of a writer. Which leads to problem number two, actors fight each other for screen presence. Given the opportunity to improvise, the majority will try to out-act the other and simple scenes will escalate erratically without going anywhere. So what you end up with is overall incoherency in favour of acting spectacle. All of which would be fine if the director was applying this rule to only one character – rather than all of them! We have constantly changing narrators; climactic scenes that run on too long, culminating in people storming off (’cause how else can they end a scene); weird camera movements, looking at hands, trying to follow the actor’s lead; muddled character arcs that paint the individual in a different light from scene-to-scene, giving them all an unhinged bipolar quality; and the main characters (the small time crooks and the FBI) end up looking like the bad guys next to the corner-cutting politician who is simply trying to provide for his community – the list goes on and on. Yet somehow, the quality of the actors involved means that despite all the ridiculousness, we still have a semi-entertaining finished product.
Despite all this bashing, the technical production side needs to be credited with immense praise. Not only did they replicate a late seventies, early eighties stylistic feel, they managed to make the film watchable. With rambling performances and a badly paced story, this movie should be a disaster but somehow you can follow what’s happening and the scenes have been well lit, shot and edited, giving us a handful of moments that work beautifully – the friendship between Bale and Renner, the fights between Lawrence and Bale, the negotiating between Cooper and Louis CK (more on that later); all of which are brilliant to watch as standalone interactions but feel out-of-place when slipped into a messy framework. What baffles me even more, is the universal acclaim this film is being lavished with. I’ve never believed that my opinion is worth more than anyone else’s and these reviews stand as an analysis rather than a recommendation but I just don’t get it. American Hustle is dull, over-acted, pretentious, irregular and if I’m honest, stupid. But go see it for yourself, send me emails, tweets, whatever, let me know what you thought. Maybe I’m being too critical… maybe that’s my job.
1st January 2014
The Scene To Look Out For:
As the film progresses, DiMaso engages in several conversations with his superior (Stoddard Thorsen played by Louis CK). In order to rein in the young and impetuous Agent, Thorsen tries to regale him with an anecdote from his childhood. Each time, DiMaso interrupts and each time Thorsen refuses to finish the story. This becomes a running joke and in the hands of two great actors and exceptional improvisers, these scenes provide some of the only comedic moments in the entire film.
Amy Adams. For the longest time, I simply assumed that I didn’t care for the roles she was playing but now I’m convinced I just don’t like her. I hated her accent, I hated her wardrobe, I hated her performance, I hated her character, I hated her motivation, I basically hated everything that she had control over and she is considered the leading female role. Maybe it’s biased, I don’t know, I still love what she produced in Doubt and The Master but I wasn’t alone when everyone in the cinema didn’t know how to react to her screaming maniacally on a club toilet. Explain that to me and I’ll see reason.
“I told you not to put metal in the science oven, what did you do that for?”
In A Few Words:
“Every now-and-then critics and award bodies will fall over themselves endlessly praising a single release that is, in fact, fairly average or sub-par. American Hustle is one of those films”