The grandest con pulled by director David O’Russell is that he makes us think American Hustle is a great film.
It may as well be his greatest film but not by any means a masterpiece.
The plot is an ordinary tale that is dressed up to look like a fantastic series of ‘real’ events, much like the film’s opening scene where Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld takes his time, elaborately combing over his balding hairline. That’s what the film essentially is, an elaborate comb over.
O’Russell builds the film around its five central actors, all in top form and clearly gunning for big awards. One can go as far as calling it O’Russell’s very own Pulp Fiction (1994) in terms of its ensemble cast. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner all work together as a team and make the film sensational.
If there’s any reason one must watch this film, it is to watch these great actors bounce brilliant performances off each other. O’Russell takes the charismatic sheen off of Bale and Cooper, makes them look like desperate, ordinary folk while he makes Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence look sexy and shimmering. These two actresses are nothing more than the magician’s lovely assistants that distract the audience while the magician pulls the rug out from under their feetbounce house canada.
At the core of the story, in true O’Russell fashion, all the characters are motivated by ‘necessity’ and somewhere along the way that necessity changes. This is a direct throwback to the director’s previous film Three Kings (1999) where a group of mercenaries go after Kuwaiti gold but end up saving refugees instead. Naturally, in that film none of the protagonists get the riches. It’s almost as if O’Russell is telling us that the good guys never get the gold and it holds true fourteen years later in American Hustle. Whoever takes a bribe in the film, ends up in jail at the end of it.
Looking back at the director’s two films immediately preceding this one, The Fighter (2011) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), it is clear that his characters keep making self-destructive choices until the third act where they decide to redeem themselves by “making things right” for everybody. Bale’s Dickie Eklund does the right thing in The Fighter by getting over his drug addiction and helping his brother win the world title and Cooper and Lawrence’s characters “make things right” by helping each other overcome their clinical depression in Silver Linings by falling in love with each othercheap bungee run rental.
This compulsive need for O’Russell to make things right is what keeps him from joining the leagues of the Tarantinos or the Scorseses who don’t seem to be bothered by it. For instance, one cannot imagine O’Russell making a film like The Age of Innocence (1993) or Two Lovers (2008), where the protagonist is broken so far beyond repair that there is simply no way to ‘make things right’.
But Rosenfeld makes things right in the end. He ensures the good guys are saved, the bad guys go to jail and the bad guy with the good intentions, Mayor Carmine Polito gets a reduced jail sentence. Of course, when you have to do all this in a matter of few minutes of running time, you resort to a twist ending. Where better directors have employed twist endings in numerous interesting ways, O’Russell resorts to banal exposition. Rosenfeld and DiMasso literally sit down in a room with a couple of supporting characters and “explain” the twist ending to each other (and in essence, to their audience).
American Hustle is David O’Russell’s greatest con. He has everything in the film to win it many awards and enough star power to make it a box-office hit. Perhaps the audience wants to be fooled. Perhaps they just want to be lost in the superficial convenience of having a story set in the 1970s, where all the actors mess up their hairstyles and wear ill-fitting clothes and have important plot points unfold over talking to each other on retro landline phones. Does anyone remember Frost/Nixon (2008)?