Martin Scorsese’s influence has had a measured presence throughout many of David O. Russell’s features, usually felt when Russell looks to highlight the grittier aspects of his narrative. By default, Russell tends to take a Capra-esque approach to filmmaking, where he arguably has more of a comic sensibility than a dramatic one. That hasn’t stopped Russell from hitting those dramatic notes throughout his work, realized most effectively in a film like The Fighter. The thing is that Russell tends to work best within a comic realm. Flirting with Disaster and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook provide rich and subversive examples of the romantic-comedy formula through the lens of Russell’s inspiration. That is to say that while these examples succeed thematically and are products of Russell’s vision, it’s a vision that borrows heavily from the tone and feel of the films of Martin Scorsese and Frank Capra.
American Hustle is very much indebted to the aforementioned auteurs. But the critical misstep in Russell’s admiration of his idols is that he mistakes reverence for imitation - a cheap one at that. As problematic as I find certain pictures in Scorsese’s and Capra’s oeuvre, I would hardly excuse either filmmaker for being disingenuous in their efforts. That claim cannot be made of Russell’s American Hustle, a film so flagrantly self-aware of itself that it suffocates any good intentions that it might have.
The film’s central premise revolves around two con artists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who must work with a rookie FBI-agent (Bradley Cooper) in an effort to expose politicians for accepting bribes. It’s essentially a heist picture glossed up by its period details and ho-hum adherence to historical truth. Russell and his collaborators aren’t particularly laborious to the period detail, opting to go balls-out extreme in terms of costumes and scenery as a means of heightening the film’s comic energy. The comedic elements work, somewhat. The problem is the jarring narrative precedence set forth by Russell and co-writer Eric Singer.
American Hustle is in constant struggle with its own intentions as it attempts to build to a big “aha” twist only to become infatuated with its own comic grandeur and costume posturing. To compensate for this clear lack of dramatic momentum, Russell aggressively uses his camera to nauseating effect, essentially evoking Scorsese without understanding why he’s evoking Scorsese. And while much has been said about the acting of the picture, it’s little more than a series of loud interchanges that don’t punctuate the written word - merely streams of clamoring discourse that conceal the grating flaws of the picture’s direction. Surprisingly, it’s Christian Bale who is best-in-show amongst the principle cast (though Louis C.K. does much more with much less), in large part because he seems to be cognizant of the manic wavelength that composes American Hustle and looks to steer against it. Unfortunately, the subtly of his work doesn’t register amid the noise.
Looking at the film, I considered the possibility that it was all an act of subversion in the vein of Paul Verhoeven. Could it be possible that these actors dressed in their Halloween get-ups were commenting on the imitative forces present throughout all of film? I mean, the centerpiece conversation of the picture involves Bale discussing the finer qualities of forgery - where greater value is placed on the forger than that of the original creator. Kinda like a Hollywood-ized synopsis of Certified Copy. But another scene is better reflective of American Hustle on the whole: Jennifer Lawrence discusses her admiration for her nail polish, awkwardly noting that she loves the smell. But she’s quick to note that while it’s a pleasant initial scent, there’s an after-odor that dominates her senses - the scent of garbage. I couldn’t have said it better myself JLaw.