A Review of American Hustle
By Daniel Carstens
December 29, 2013
In an early scene of the latest uninspired David O. Russell film, American Hustle, Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams), their relationship blossoming, visit Irving's dry cleaning business. In one particular shot, the characters express their attraction in the midst of a revolving clothing rack. The rack perpetually spins, never ceasing. Likewise, throughout the film, Russell's camera is almost constantly in motion. Whether a pan, tracking shot, or hand-held, rarely does the camera simply sit on a tripod. These camera movements usually exist only for the sake of movement and add nothing to the film aesthetically. They usually differ from shot to shot, clashing with each other and creating a jittery, visually-disjointed mess.
The same can essentially be said for the entire film. It's a shame, because the source material, the FBI's Abscam operation, begs to be made into a great film. Truth is stranger than fiction, in this instance. American Hustle attempts to make us laugh, attempts to be dramatic, and attempts to pose a moral dilemma. It fails on all accounts. The moral dilemma is perhaps most interesting. All characters in the film are despicable, except for Louis C.K.'s FBI character, who is constantly undermined and ignored. The moral dilemma centers around Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He is crooked, but only to provide jobs and boost the local economy. The film attempts to make the audience sympathize with Polito (and with Irving when he helps Polito), thus creating a moral dilemma by causing the audience to sympathize with a crooked politician, but this is weak, like all of the film's ambitions.
Like 2012's Silver Linings Playbook, Russell uses his actors to mask the deficiencies of his film. Silver Linings featured neurotic performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence that were, more than anything, attention-grabbing enough to shield the audience's eyes from the major flaws. Russell threw in Robert DeNiro, just for good measure.
In American Hustle, Cooper and Lawrence return to save Russell. Cooper and Lawrence feature similarly neurotic performances that, while not necessarily outstanding, again build a facade for the banality of the film. Just as the characters con mobsters, congressmen, and each other in the film, Russell cons the audience into believing they are watching great cinema. Richard Dyer writes that stars are like the air that we breathe, that we construct our own identities and perceptions of social reality from stars' on-screen persona and personal lives. Russell carefully chose four stars whose persona differ and encompass nearly the full spectrum of personalities to ensure everyone can breathe the air of his film. Bale is a modern John Wayne (albeit a better actor), a portrait of masculinity, while Cooper is more of a James Dean. The confident, sexy Adams is reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, while frenzied Lawrence brings to mind a screwball comedy actress. All four stars are, of course, immensely popular at the moment. Russell threw in Robert DeNiro, just for good measure.
Dyer writes, "Stars are made for profit." It seems obvious, but stars are not only used for their acting skills. Russell's roles are not tailor-made for any of these actors. Many other actors could have played the roles with equal result, but Russell chose stars massively popular in the mainstream: Bale (Batman), Cooper (The Hangover), Adams (Man of Steel), and Lawrence (Hunger Games). Stars not only draw people to the theater, but cause audiences to believe that films are good simply because of the stars acting in them. Such is the case in American Hustle. It is the only explanation for the popularity and critical acclaim of the film.
Russell's actors save him, and Russell returns the favor by positioning them for Oscar nominations, using all the modern formulas for grabbing acting awards. Our first look at Bale is a closeup of his bulging belly, showcasing the weight he gained for the role (weight helped him win his Oscar in The Fighter, another Russell film). Adams takes her clothes off (a la Natalie Portman & Kate Winslett). Cooper and Lawrence's characters both exhibit mental instability (Lawrence, last year, directed by Russell). All are virtual locks for nominations, and it would be a shock if at least one did not walk on stage to heap praise and thanks upon David O.
Near the end of American Hustle, Irving returns to his dry cleaning business to retrieve a gun. In one shot, he finds himself again in the midst of the revolving clothing rack. It still spins quickly and constantly. The rack remains unchanged from the previous two hours. The same can be said for the audience, though they have been conned into believing otherwise.