A decade ago, directors David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson’s artistic paths crossed streams. Anderson started out in the mid-‘90s dabbing at genre with the gritty down-and-out drama Hard Eight (aka Sydney) and then exploding into the full-blown backstage, “a star is porn” faux-musical Boogie Nights.
Around the same time, Russell was grabbing critical attention with a couple eclectic indie films about familial dysfunction—Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster. Then both film makers swerved—Anderson into his utterly unclassifiable (and often brilliant) magnum opus Magnolia, Russell into a stab at star-driven genre with the terrific Three Kings before tackling his own utterly unclassifiable lark, I Heart Huckabees.
Both writer-directors showed the kind of innate cinematic verve and daring that makes critics and art-house connoisseurs swoon—these are guys who know how to simultaneously create meaning and tell an entertaining story with film. By the late-‘00s, however, Russell and Anderson had emerged from their creative explorations with new directions.
Anderson left behind the magpie flash and thematic catch-alls of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and began to make much more focused, emotionally nuanced films driven by character not plot, films that aggressive avoid any sort of genre labels: the flat-out cinematic genius of Punchdrunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master.
But after the creative and financial misfire of Huckabees (not to mention the bad-rep press from his on-set tantrums), Russell went the other direction. After a five-year hiatus, sometime around 2009, you can almost hear Russell, the eclectic, satiric cineaste, say, “To hell with this art-house crap, I need to start pleasing me some crowds.”
And so came The Fighter—a boxing movie that, for all its swagger, humor, grit, and powerhouse performances, still ends up just another Rocky-style underdog winner’s tale. Then last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, which once again makes a lot of deft, indie-style feints with quirky characters wrestling with mental illnesses and interpersonal damages, but in the end looks a whole lot like a plain old rom-com.
The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook are both well-made, undeniably enjoyable and laudable movies that benefit from Russell’s impressive sense of cinema, but they are not art-house films that play well to a wider audience—they are predictable and show-offy mainstream films that wrap themselves with just enough indie verve to keep the critics happy.
Which brings us to Russell’s latest, the ‘70s con-com American Hustle, co-written with Eric Singer. And it too is a terrifically entertaining movie, one that draws much of its cast from The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) and Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and a cameo from Robert DeNiro), but is a stronger, more thematically and stylistically cohesive film than either of them.
Part of the reason American Hustle works so well is that, like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, it still feels like it’s playing at itself, merely toying with its genre and obvious influences (The Sting, Goodfellas, and Boogie Nights itself, just to get the list started). However, the problem with those other films was they pretended at sincerity, trying to gin up some sort of genuine concern about the lives of their salt-of-the-earth characters.
American Hustle, on the other hand, opens with a one-two brash punch: Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” stings and stomps over the soundtrack as we watch Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld primp and preen, his pale, pasta-fed belly hanging out as the con man literally glues his “elaborate” comb-over in place. From that moment on it’s all about facades and peacocking, as Bale’s brass-balled hairpiece is soon rivaled by Cooper’s tiny-curled perm atop his high-strung FBI nut job Richie DiMaso, and Jeremy Renner’s Jersey pompadour as he plays a sweetly crooked mayor with a heart of gold. The men are soon joined by a ‘70s cleavage-off between Adams (as Irving’s lover and partner in scam Sydney) and Lawrence (as his hilariously self-preserving wife Roz).
For the rest of its running time, as the film purports to tell “mostly true” story of how the FBI used real con artists to catch U.S. Congressmen taking bribes in the complicated “Abscam” sting, American Hustle never lets up. Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren never pass up an opportunity to strut, rubbing our faces in over-cranked visual swagger.
The film’s jammed full of daring hair and fast polyester patter from big talkers with wide lapels and/or plunging necklines, set to a constantly perfect soundtrack of hazy easy-listening audio hedonism that’s a parade of ‘70s delusion. At times American Hustle feels so artificially outside itself, it almost plays like one of those ‘80s Saturday Night Live sketches where Billy Crystal and Martin Short were decked out in thick make-up and wigs to archly act out some ridiculous premise.
What saves American Hustle from tipping completely into self parody is Russell’s greatest hustle: There’s nothing to any of this. The film doesn’t have much to say about all this corruption other than it can be very titillating in its outrageousness. Adams is a sly, glaring, self-created wonder; Lawrence is a blowsy hoot; and Cooper plays Richie’s tightly-wound mania for steadily nervous laughs, especially when bowling over his FBI boss, Louis C.K. They’re all characters with a capital “C” (for “Carnival”).
The closest the film comes to any sort of humanity is in Irving’s sullen chutzpah—under the wig and the belly and the sleazy shades is an insecure guy trying to fool himself first and everyone else second. The film’s best joke is that for all his bravado, Irving is actually the film’s relatively passive center around which all the other dingbats and survival artists revolve.
Russell’s film does have a lot to say about artifice; personal (and cinematic) style not as an expression but a mask. When you step back from the leisure suits and Halston dresses and the soundtrack full of ‘70s studio-concoctions from Elton John, Chicago, Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, and ELO, you realize this is what the ‘70s were: one long scam. Sixties earnest idealism had been snuffed out by Manson, Nixon, and Vietnam, and all that was left was to shake it and fake it until you got rich or arrested.
Artificial hair and accents, unnatural polyester clothes, carefully practiced disco dance moves, and “Arab Sheiks” from Mexico—American Hustle is a copycat Scorsese movie about chasing lives and dreams completely divorced from reality. It’s a study of glorious, epic falseness.
That’s why it all works on a brash, ballsy level, even as it aggressively tries not to say anything—Russell seems to have given up the pursuit of honesty in his films, preferring instead to pull a new genre off the shelf each year and riff away with dazzling mimicry. It all feels perfectly empty and pointless, but that puts American Hustle right at home in the charlatan-rich ‘70s.
By making an intentionally ersatz con-artist movie, Russell the cinematic hustler no longer has to lie about his new-found career as an artistic liar—he can be honest about being a phony.