Latest in the line-up of films I need to see again is David O. Russell’s current feature, “American Hustle.” Not because I was so delighted with it I can’t wait to see it again – though I did enjoy it very much, particularly for the performances – but because it is so confused about its genre, and I need to see it again to figure out if that confusion is due to an intriguing slipperiness or a disappointing sloppiness.
On the most obvious level, “American Hustle” is a story of con artists conning each other (and possibly themselves). Precedents, depending on tone, could include “The Lady Eve,” “The Sting,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Grifters,” “House of Games,” and so forth. It’s also, and more fundamentally, a story of a love-quadrangle, since Irving (Christian Bale) is married to nutball housewife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), but is in love with fellow grifter (and then partner-in-grift) Sydney (Amy Adams), who may or may not be falling for FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper), who has definitely got a thing for her.
It’s also a period piece, set in the 1970s, and flaunts the fact of being a period piece – there’s the music, the hair, the outfits, all played way, way up. And it’s a political story about corruption and idealism making not-so-strange bedfellows, with the mob thrown in for good measure. The FBI side of the story is also a political story – about the ambitions of Richie, and of his boss’s boss, who’s willing to cut plenty of ethical corners to get a big score.
That’s a lot of different threads of story, and it’s not surprising that Russell doesn’t weave them together perfectly, or that they all aren’t given equal weight. It’s also not surprising that people would think that they add up to a Scorcese picture (and it’s being compared to “Goodfellas” in particular, but also “Casino“), because all the elements could fit together that way. A story about small time guys from the neighborhood reaching for the big time, getting in over their heads, but still trying to swim – that’s the kind of movie old Marty would love to make.
And Russell seems to have thought that it should be a Scorcese picture. He shot the film like it’s supposed to be a Scorcese picture. The music and scoring and from a Scorcese picture. But all of that surprises me, because in the end, he isn’t interested in making a Scorcese picture – he has different obsessions. Which results in persistent confusion about what kind of movie we’re watching.
Russell is, at heart, a director of screwball comedy. His paradigmatic film, to my mind, is “Flirting With Disaster.” But screwball isn’t really a contemporary genre – that’s not the kind of comedy we do these days – and his particular take on screwball is screwier than most. So, starting with “The Fighter,” when he set out consciously to reinvent himself as a commercially-viable director, Russell has directed films whose genres we can discern – and then infected them with his manic weirdness. In “The Fighter,” it was Christian Bale’s character who was the focus of that weirdness – but also the whole milieu from which he sprang. The story of Mark Wahlberg’s character was almost incidental to what the picture was really “about.” In “Silver Linings Playbook,” he created what is ultimately a pretty straightforward high concept romantic comedy – but he infected it by making his crazy lovers genuinely nuts, not just movie nuts. Bradley Cooper’s character is so disturbing in the early scenes of the film, that the happy ending inevitably rings kind of false. It’s there for structural reasons, not because it is entirely congruent with the film as it began.
Of course, another way to look at the same process is to say that Russell isn’t sneaking his own obsessions into films of various genres, but rather taking those genres apart by coming at them from his own weird angle. So, “The Fighter” is a boxing picture, with the same structure as all boxing pictures. But Russell is interested in the brother, the one who is never going to be a contender; by saying this story is more interesting than the story the boxing picture is supposed to tell, he’s questioning the boxing picture as a genre. Because the conventions of romantic comedy require the leads to behave like crazy people, “Silver Linings Playbook,” by involving actual crazy people, questions the romantic comedy as a genre (which is why the traditional ending feels a bit false).
Which brings us to “American Hustle.” The title announces this is an important movie: a movie about America. The subjects are greed, graft and grift. But what Russell is really interested in is the human vulnerabilities and neediness of his characters. Irving doesn’t want to hit the big time; he wants to stay small. When Robert De Niro shows up, playing a real mob boss, Irving is terrified, not thrilled – and Richie is too stupid to know he should be scared.
The politics doesn’t really matter to Russell either. He has these big scenes of Jeremy Renner, mayor of Camden, talking about his ideals, about rebuilding the city – and they barely play for what they are, because what the scenes are really about is Irving, the grifter, feeling guilty about taking this guy, because he’s a good egg and he likes him. And the picture is stolen over and over again by scenes out of screwball comedy – the scene where Jennifer Lawrence nearly burns the house down by putting metal in the “science oven;” the scene where she announces that Irving should thank her for ratting him out so he nearly gets killed, because that’s when he came up with his plan to get out of the mess they’re in – pretty much every scene with Jennifer Lawrence in it, actually – but also the scenes with Richie’s boss (played pitch-perfectly by Louis CK as, basically, the same guy Louis CK always plays).
The whole movie, far from being a Scorcesean paean to vitality, is in fact doing a root canal job on that kind of movie, burrowing under it and exposing the nerve, the pathetic desire to be loved and admired, the vulnerable need that is protected by a hard shell of vaunting ambition. (Amy Adams almost doesn’t have a shell, which is why her performance is actually the weakest of the bunch – I was never quite convinced that she could be as successful a hustler as she is when she’s always wearing her heart on her sleeve.)
But Russell wants it both ways – he wants you to enjoy the Scorcesean roller-coaster even as at every turn he’s showing you that his real pleasure tilt-a-whirl. And it turns out you can’t quite have it both ways.
The film hits a couple of notes at the end – the first effective on its own terms but undermined by the way the film progressed to that point, the second a bit forced. The con artists have one last grift up their sleeve – that plan Irving hatched up when he had a canvas bag over, and a gun to, his head – and the scene where Irving tells the FBI how it is plays beautifully. Except that we’ve long since lost sight of Irving as a grifter at all; the film was so completely taken over by the romantic drama on the one hand and by Richie’s insane ante-upping on the other. So it doesn’t play like the culmination of a series of clever twists; it feels like a sharp turn to another kind of movie, one that we haven’t really been in much.
And then we get the happy ending for our romantic principals, the two grifters, a flat-out reversal of the ending of “Goodfellas,” where suburban normalcy is the reward, not the punishment. It’s a surprisingly moralistic note on which to end – unless this really is supposed to be a screwball comedy, in which case it’s entirely appropriate. But if this is a screwball comedy, then the ending of Richie’s story doesn’t fit (among many other things). Maybe all I’m seeing is that this is such an ensemble piece that each major character is in a different genre of movie. Which is certainly interesting, but it makes for a jerky ride.
But the biggest problem with the happy ending is precisely that this is so insistently a period piece. Our expectation with such pieces is that they will “say something” about the period in question, and that the thematic note of the ending will relate to that something. Well, if this kind of whirligig of confidence games is supposed to represent America in the ’70s in some sense, then the ending reads as a kind of yearning for a “return to normalcy” – but does that matter anymore? Even the ’80s is ancient history at this point.
Russell has been tripped up before by trying to “say something” – in “Three Kings,” a film that has not aged well at all given all the history that has passed through Mesopotamia since then. Personally, while I’m eager to see almost anything he does these days, if only to relish the phenomenal performances he gets out of his actors, I wish he’d make another straight-up screwball. That would be a particularly special delight.