How many bad milkshakes have you had?
Odds are not many. Why? Because, arguably, there’s no way to really screw up a milkshake. It’s comprised of three simple ingredients: ice cream, chocolate syrup, and – of course – milk. These ingredients can be substandard or out of proportion but generally when combined they will produce a delicious product. Yet for all of its fine ingredients, American Hustle remains a bad milkshake. Convoluted culinary metaphors aside, what does this mean? It means that while ostensibly this has all the hallmarks of a great film — interesting subject matter, a formidable cast, etc — it somehow came out sour, and what’s worse than a sour milkshake?
A fictional retelling of the ABSCAM era of the 1970s, American Hustle purports to be story about survival. Our hero, for lack of a better term, is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) whose pathetically complex combover suggests more of his character than any given backstory. Irving is a small-time con artist who values his ability to survive above all else. He deals in art, or rather art forgeries, alongside his paramour Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) whose ability to adopt a charming English accent plays a key role in their scams. The romantic and professional partnership between Irving and Sydney is hindered, however, by Irving’s nutty wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a neglected woman trapped in the clutches of suburban malaise. To call Rosalyn unpredictable is an understatement. Whether she is accidentally setting the kitchen on fire or romancing a malicious gangster, her mere presence is the film’s greatest wild card.
On the opposite side of the law is Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a reckless FBI agent who leverages Irving and Sydney into assisting him in his quest to take down Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the good-hearted but nevertheless corrupt mayor of Camden, New Jersey. From here the film becomes a twisted and free-wheeling ride as cons collide, blurring the lines between reality and fiction, affectation and sincerity, as it goes.
Yet for all its duplicity, American Hustle is not a plot-oriented film. In fact, all traces of a coherent or layered narrative dissolve by the final act. Director David O. Russell has repeatedly stated his films are not about plot, but rather about character. That’s all well and good, and many of the best films find success with this template (The recent efforts of the Coen Brothers come to mind), but only if the characters presented are genuinely interesting. In this case, Russell doesn’t even have characters; he has caricatures. The New York hood, the needy wife, the sexy partner, the corrupt authority figures, and so on. This is not the fault of the cast. These are five talented actors shoved into ill-fitting roles and adorned with outlandish wigs and costumes to distract from the fact that their characters are hollow inside. Were the script (by Russell and Eric Warren Singer) a bit thicker or the actors given less room to improvise, the final product may not seem so lopsided. This does not feel like a finished film. This feels like a dress rehearsal.
Even the finer points of the film cannot claim originality. Russell spends two hours doing his best Martin Scorsese impression, utilizing steadicam at every turn and flooding the soundtrack with ‘70s chart toppers. Even Renner, with his pompadour and short temper, feels like a watered down version of Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. Make no mistake, there are some bright spots too; Louis CK is a welcome presence as an undermined FBI superior with a seemingly endless ice fishing story. The improvisations by Bale and company, while excessive, lead to some very funny one-liners (“I thought you were mysterious like my mother until I found out mysterious just meant depressed!”) as well. The wasted potential of this film is what hurts the most. In more competent hands, we might’ve had a modern classic. Yet Russell – whose previous effort Silver Linings Playbook was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2012 – keeps going bigger and bigger until he has a bloated, scattershot tale filled with nothing but hot air.
Despite being a frontrunner with a staggering ten nominations, American Hustle went home empty-handed at the 86th Academy Awards. I can only hope this defeat will send a message to Russell – for whom I will admit I carry a personal distaste – to stop leaving so much to chance. Improvisation is nice, but as with all things, only in moderation. Sacrificing coherent narrative for the sake of some funny dialogue (i.e. The Woody Allen Approach) is unlikely to produce the accolades he clearly desires. This is not to say Russell is undeserving, but he’ll have to try harder than packing talented actors into an otherwise forgettable film.
2.5 out of 5
American Hustle is now available on DVD and Blu-ray