David O. Russell is a guy who obsesses over the details. Most great directors do… It’s necessary to create atmosphere in a film, or really anything else for that matter, considering filmmaking is creating something out of nothing. Props, costumes, sets, everything: chosen specifically. So having an eye for detail is nothing new; it’s a necessity, expected, and not really worth mentioning. David O. Russell really obsesses over details, which has generally produced some truly amazing and unique films in the past. But in his latest, American Hustle, Russell loses the forest in the trees, focusing so intensely on getting every tacky prop and every bad hair piece just right, that it feels more like a retro fashion show we’re meant to gawk at and applaud for its bold styles than a narrative film in which we can really immerse ourselves.
A loose retelling (“Some of this actually happened”, we’re told at the start) of the ’70s Abscam scandal, American Hustle is an ensemble period piece that reunites Russell with virtually every actor he’s ever worked with, as well as a few new additions. It’s a marvelous cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner; the list goes on. It’s a who’s who of Hollywood’s best and brightest, and they all lose themselves in their parts, creating beautifully nuanced characters with brilliant performances (Russell also has a way with actors).
The problem is that Russell’s screenplay is too loose a retelling of this story. It meanders all over the place, opening up many avenues for the story to take, but without really taking any of them, resulting in a disjointed experience which spreads too many characters too thin.
At times it seemed as if some of the scenes belonged to an entirely different film or taken from a different draft of the same screenplay. It was out of control by the end, which made it not so much difficult to watch, but difficult to truly appreciate.
It doesn’t help that American Hustle’s protagonists are brilliant con-artists conning each other as well as everyone else. This is especially problematic because the film exists on two planes: it’s at once the story about the FBI operation and about a love triangle (or maybe quadrangle). Russell seems less interested in a more traditional procedural examination of the Abscam angle, so, all we’re left with is the drama between these characters. But, with all the conning we’re never really sure who’s on whose side, and after a half hour everyone’s motivations start to lose clarity. We’re never sure what these people are trying to achieve on a personal level, making it hard to care about their struggles and feel their emotions. All that’s left is the absurdity, which is what Russell seems more interested in anyway.
Abscam provides great source material, with people in way over their heads in an operation that started small and got bigger and bigger and spiraled out of control in a hurry. Rather than document it note for note, Russell instead takes a broad-strokes approach, delivering a wacky narrative and decorating it with the most ridiculous era kitsch he could dream up. He opens on a shot of Christian Bale’s huge gut and pans up to his receding hairline for a two-minute sequence of him sculpting his awful comb-over. This, in a nutshell, is American Hustle.
This would all be great if Russell didn’t seem so pleased with himself over it. He begs the audience to acknowledge every garish costume with a camera pan from the feet up, and so saturates every frame with outrageous period set design that the film feels more ’70s than the ’70s did… It’s the ’70s squared.
It has the effect of two sportscasters drawing on the screen with their white pens, circling every detail: “Just look at that ostentatious cravat that Christian Bale is wearing! Oh boy! Russell really outdid himself with that one!” He focuses so intensely on meticulously quirky details that I got the impression he spent more time picking out the absolute perfect hideous wallpaper than he did on the screenplay itself. And rather than let me soak up all of this and savor it for myself, Russell shoved it in my face and yelled it in my ear.
But despite all of this, there’s still so much to appreciate in American Hustle, and much talent on display. In addition to the great characters and performances, and the wallpaper, which is perfectly hideous, it’s a visual marvel, beautifully photographed and directed with oh so much style. Watching everyone interact is often a true pleasure to watch, and there are moments that work so well the film achieves a state of almost bliss. I think Russell made the film he wanted to make, it just wasn’t the one I wanted to see, because while every scene unto itself is very good, the end result feels like a miss, even if it’s a well-intentioned one. Yes, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, but that’s not to say that its parts aren’t fun to watch at times.