David O. Russell made his name in the nineties by directing great independent movies such as Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings, but he has become kind of a different director over the past few years. Maybe it was the infamous tape of him fighting with Lily Tomlin on set that made him change his ways, but he has definitely set his more meticulous and obsessive self to the side in order to embrace a much more visceral style of filmmaking. I find a lot of good things in both his latest movies, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and that I enjoyed them a lot while watching them, but after they were done, I felt like I had very little if anything to think or discuss. It’s only been a couple hours since I saw American Hustle, but so far I’m having the same experience.
American Hustle features a case of the hottest Hollywood stars in a semi-factual recreation of the “Abscam” operation, in which the FBI arrested a number of politicians charged on corruption charges. Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as a pair of con-artists recruited by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to assist him on taking down Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the Mayor of Candem, New Jersey. Bale’s character’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, also features into the story in a scene-stealing supporting role. Even if I’m not as huge a fan of these actors as other people, I must say they do a really good job. As I said before, my experience watching American Hustle was nothing if not entertaining, and a lot of that has to do with the performances. I even enjoyed Christian Bale, who I usually find way too intense and self-serious. They all bounce off of each other beautifully, and Russell’s filmmaking makes the movie feel almost visceral in its immediacy.
The problem with the movie is that in focusing in the immediate, Russell gives little attention to the plot. Running for more than two hours, the movie meanders into many overlong and unessential scenes. It’s unfocused and too long. This shouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there is something the director wants to say through this structure. In this case, though, I feel like there is nothing particularly deep or thematic lying under the surface of the movie. Having the word “American” in the title is an easy way to make a movie feel important, but I’m afraid American Hustle is just a fun, throwback caper. Now, capers usually live and die by two things: fun characters, and their plot, and like I said, Russell is not interested in the latter. I am not even sure I could tell you how exactly the whole sting operation presented in this movie goes down.
In some way, this doesn’t really matter. The movie is still a lot of fun to watch, but it definitely doesn’t benefit it. When the plot is put to the side, what we have left is the characters, and since they are mostly a bunch of weirdos played by talented people, watching them is interested. But also since they’re mostly a bunch of weirdos, it’s hard to feel a strong attachment to them. That’s why the best characters are actually the ones that seem more normal. Comedian Louis C.K. has a smaller role as a tired down-to-earth FBI agent, and he is one of the most exciting characters. The same goes for Jeremy Renner, who gets the most humane role out of the main five. He is, in my opinion, the best performance in the movie because he can truly find an emotionally sincere angle to his character.
In the end, the movie reveals its most interesting aspect to be the relationship between Bale and Renner’s characters, and while the final moments pack an acceptable amount of power, the movie has meandered too much and hasn’t really let us know this is what we should be invested in. At that point, everything it has left is the plot, and we’ve already established where that aspect lies in the list of priorities. What we end up with is a movie that is very entertaining, but not much else.
Grade: 7 out of 10 (worth watching)