Amy Adams and Christian Bale do the '70s in David O. Russell's "American Hustle." Credit: Francois Duhamel
‘American Hustle’ Director: David O. Russell Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
A decade ago, David O. Russell was a “difficult” filmmaker, prone to eccentric projects (“I Heart Huckabees”) and scandalous on-set outbursts. He’s pulled an impressive 180, albeit by churning out films that wouldn’t seem to interest such an iconoclast: an inspirational sports saga (“The Fighter”) and a feel-good dramedy about movie mental illness (“Silver Linings Playbook”). True, he’s forced those projects to fit his own particular brand: They carry over his love of extreme disorder and locating the funny in the assumed-to-be unfunny. But they still smack of compromise.
Without assuming too much, it’s likely he identifies a lot with the characters of “American Hustle," his take on what could be called "the 'Goodfellas' genre." Jam-packed with crazy camera moves and killer music cues, it concerns the larger-than-life Abscam operation of the '70s and '80s. Christian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists blackmailed by the feds — including Bradley Cooper's overzealous agent — into cracking down on the mafia and entrapping the connected but decent Camden mayor (Jeremy Renner).
Each character — starting with Bale's Irving Rosenfeld, who kicks off the film by painstakingly erecting his combination toupee and combover — is forced to become something they’re not. “Did you ever have to learn how to survive?” one of them asks. The narration track brims over with similar statements about having to adapt and reinvent and generally mask one’s true self to get by. Adams’ Sydney Prosser adopts a fakey, in-and-out British accent and confesses, “My dream was to become anybody else than who I was.” Even Cooper curls his own hair and pretends that he’s a powerful agent, when in reality his superior is played by a never-shlubbier Louis C.K.
Is Russell trying to say something? Even now, one of his films — "Nailed," filmed in 2007 — sits on a shelf, collecting dust, thanks to a dense legal snafu, with no end in sight. He remains a desperate man in a business that turns on you with the first hint of failure. Technically he shouldn't even be doing a Martin Scorsese knockoff. And in truth, he only winds up meeting the genre halfway. Russell is not Scorsese. He doesn’t do “cool shots” with the camera. His passion is for observing actors, giving them the space to create chaos that his frames struggle to contain. There’s a push-pull between its director’s style and the material’s own requisite style. Whiplashy camera pans become Russell's own brand of long takes where actors — also including Jennifer Lawrence, reliably scene-stealing as Irving’s mysteriously ignored wife — step over each other’s lines, shouting and screaming to be heard.
Likewise, there are "cool" songs, but they tend to either be smoother (Steely Dan, Chicago) or goofier (some never-heard ELO tracks from Jeff Lynne’s personal stash) than the norm. There is no rise and fall arc. The characters start crazy and end crazy. They don’t even need drugs; they get high on their own cross-wired personalities. On the other hand, Russell should never do a song montage; he needs to stay in the intense present, not chop up reality into a greatest hits package. Still, say what you will about this intentionally shrill yet often hilarious romp, which always stays a comedy, but only one person could have made it.