Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Rennert, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence. Credit: Francois Duhamel / Sony Pictures
The thing about director David O. Russell is this: He wants you to notice him.
He can’t really accomplish this through technique. He can’t establish or sustain a mood. He can’t build a narrative that lures you in and wallops you, or caresses or soothes or excites you either. He can’t edit together a coherent sequence to save his life.
In his new film, American Hustle, he throws a bunch of loud and flashy characters together and orders them to thrash and shout and preen their way through a muddled story. We can’t be sure what the point is to all the commotion in this movie. We can’t be sure what we’re watching is even a movie.
It’s more like we’re witnessing a parade of potential Oscar nominees who’ve gone off their meds, all of them taking wild, crazed whacks at a piñata of a plot, feasting on the chewy morsels of scenes that tumble out. It’s a hell of a way to make a film. But — and here’s the other thing about David O. Russell — sometimes the results are damned entertaining.
American Hustle starts off with a disclaimer or rather, with an excuse: “Some of this actually happened.” This allows Russell to play loose with the facts of the real-life Abscam episode of the late 1970s, a sordid account of con men, FBI agents, fake sheikhs, seedy congressmen and a vain New Jersey mayor, all drunk on ego and engorged with greed, looking for a short cut to fame and riches.
Typical stuff, not especially promising as screenplay material. But Russell stitches this flimsy fabric together with attitude, what they used to call “moxie.” He asks Christian Bale to gain 40 pounds and wear a comb-over. He convinces Amy Adams to go bra-less for the entire film, sheathing her in distracting outfits. He lures Jennifer Lawrence into even more revealing costumes, requires her to sit much of the film out until, in a juicy switcheroo, she emerges as the richest character.
He gets Bradley Cooper to essentially repeat his performance from Silver Linings Playbook, except this time he hides his bi-polar zaniness behind a scrim of respectability as a hotshot Fed. Jeremy Renner, equipped with a tidal wave coif and a Joysee accent, also delivers for his director as the sympathetic but misguided mayor.
The movie plays out with the grace of a caged animal. It howls with an antic desire to smash something. The picture is so messy and manic that when it calms down to make a half-hearted grab at coherence, it falls into a tedious rut. That’s the problem with a person or a thing this nutty. It burns out and sits in a corner until it recharges.
Watching American Hustle sometimes feels like a command. Or a challenge. If you don’t enjoy the shit out of it, you’re a dope.
I got the same feeling watching "The Wolf of Wall Street", which presents a picture of unchecked greed and seamy fraud as over-the-top as this film. But Martin Scorsese has a master’s vocabulary of film grammar. He can still fashion set pieces that knock your socks off. When his camera rockets through a frame, it actually takes you somewhere. His razzle dazzle — the super slo mo, the hard cuts on a musical hook — enriches the agency of his characters, or propels the story into another orbit.
Russell’s spasms of energy come across as impotent gestures, lacking tension or dramatic reason.
So he relies on the performances to supply the movie’s kick. Thankfully, they are all super-sized, but free of ham. Bale drops his somber, one-note Batman shtick to create a fully-rounded (in more ways than one), compassionate crook with the heart of a teddy bear. Adams wavers in and out of her character’s faked English accent, but she makes you believe how badly this girl from New Mexico wants to seize more from life. Cooper is a little hard to take, even though you can sympathize with how much the actor is trying to escape the pretty-boy image of his early career.
But it’s Jennifer Lawrence who ties this disheveled, madcap room of a movie together. As the wife who morphs into the moll, she is the only character who seems to have an interior life, the only one with a shred of moral dignity, the only one who grows organically into a person more self-aware than the person she was when the movie started.
She supplies the perspective her director seems unable to put his finger on. While Russell entertains with flailing scenes that play like pratfalls, Lawrence fiercely cuts right through to the heart of the folly.
This review first appeared in Rustin Thompson's blog The Restless Critic.