Director: David O. Russell
Perhaps the greatest trick this film plays is that it has conned its audience either way, polarising to create gushing rave reviews and awards on the one hand and strange – almost nonsensical scorn on the other. People seem to either loathe or love this movie and the truth of it, probably, is that the film is good – not great. And that even if it grates, as it seems to do, there’s much that should be admired about it.
American Hustle appears to have been built for its actors – and exists as much to showcase choreography and costumes, soundtrack and accents. It’s too easy – and silly – to consider this some sub-par Scorsese, far better to understand at as the continuing vision and virtuosity of David O. Russell, one of the best directors of the last 20 years, certainly the best at strangling drama and comedy into one, twisting them to make a third genre.
American Hustle is loosely based on a true story in much the way the ideal of the American Dream is loosely based on something ethical – or achievable. That this homily opens with an almost unrecognisable Christian Bale – fat and dealing with a messy, ugly comb-over – is a clue, right away, that it’s not your typical crime-caper/based-on-a-true-story dramedy. We are not meant to be lured in – in any way – to a lavish lifestyle with the pay-off being that the walls come tumbling down. This is a hack, a bottom-feeding crim – we’re all but sucker-punched with this ghastly image of him because right away we loathe him. Yet he’s our hero. And he’s arguably the closest thing to an honest character in the movie. He does at least know who he is. The film has plenty of faults – it’s too long, the pacing is off, sometimes you should trust Russell and go with it, other times he’s flat out fucked it up – but a reason to watch this film and enjoy it is for Bale’s performance.
Actually all of the leads nail their roles and all of them – Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams – have found ways to be among the Hollywood A-list, making mainstream films, but disappearing into characters, not repeating themselves, being interesting in each and every role. And improving with every role too. That’s about as subversive as Hollywood can get.
From a blast of Duke Ellington through Chicago and Steely Dan the soundtrack is perfect and maybe it’s the placing of the soundtrack – the positioning of it, the volume, the choices – that has taken people down the road to Scorsese; the idea of the soundtrack as character in the film.
I couldn’t get on board with American Hustle as any sort of ‘classic’ or even great film. But it’s often a very good film, worth it for the performances. Worth it for the boldness in its largely fictional retelling of a factual – on the record – account. Worth it because David O. Russell is proving himself to always be interesting. Worth it because there’s a nice play on the morality/duality of characters – the ones you think you should be rooting for are not, eventually, what they seem. The ones you are sure you should think nothing of are the ones that show the most heart. And there’s art in the con – both in the way the con of this film plays out and in the conceit of the actual film.