There is a scene in David O. Russell's "American Hustle" where Christian Bale's con artist character, Irving, walks with Bradley Cooper's FBI agent character, Richie, through a museum in New York, and he points out a Rembrandt hanging on the wall. Richie comments that it's beautiful. Then, much to Richie's disbelief, Irving informs him that the painting is a forgery, and gives a brief monologue asking who is the greater artist…the original artist or the forger?
I found that scene to be very enlightening while watching "American Hustle", because if you answered that question by saying the forger is the greater artist, then you'd think "American Hustle" is a great film. The reason being is that "American Hustle" is, in fact, a forgery. It is a forgery of many, much better Martin Scorsese films. A friend of mine, the Honorable Rev. Dr. Seamus J. Magillicutty III, recently overheard two people talking about this film and they described it as "Scorsese karaoke". I couldn't agree more. Russell uses Scorsese-esque camera moves, he uses popular music like Scorsese, he uses voice overs like Scorsese, the storyline and location are right out of the Scorsese playbook, you name it and he tries to copy Scorsese. The problem is, that David O. Russell isn't Scorsese, not even close. Despite the camera moves, the film visually looks flat and stale. Despite the popular music the film doesn't pulse with a vibrant life but rather feels listless. And despite the voice overs, or maybe even because of them, the narrative isn't more clarified but rather becomes murkier.
The pitch for this movie is an easy sell, four terrific actors combined with a very interesting story and time period and the film should be a slam dunk. The problem is, like the last two David O. Russell films, "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter", there is no 'there'…there. These films should be good, but they just aren't. They all look and feel the same way, visually dull, dramatically rushed, scattered and sloppy. The films seem forced into conventional storytelling structures, with the final product being a shallow, tinny mess with a staggering lack of attention to detail that feels unconscionably lazy.
Here are a few examples of what I mean. In "The Fighter" the boxing scenes are absolutely laughable in how amateur they are. The fighters move and react as if they are fighting under water. I mean, it is supposed to be a realistic boxing movie and yet it looks, feels and seems like it was made by people who have not only never boxed, but have never even watched an actual fight or seen any other boxing movie. Christian Bale is great in "The Fighter", no doubt about it, but his performance is forced to overcome the flatness of the films visual style and emptiness of its drama. He is the only thing with any life in the whole film.
Another example can be found in "Silver Linings Playbook", where Bradley Cooper does outstanding acting work in a film that doesn't rise to meet his strong commitment to it. The film is set in Philadelphia, which is a major part of the story, and yet, not a single actor in the film has a Philly accent. Philadelphia also, according to the film, has only one police officer on duty in the whole city, and this poor bastard works every minute of every day. Football is also a major part of the story, yet again, as in "The Fighter" with boxing, "Silver Linings Playbook" seems to be made by people who have never played or watched football a day in their lives, and listening to the dialogue about football is truly painful and cringe worthy. The attention to detail in both of these films is so extraordinarily sloppy as to be embarrassing.
A look at "American Hustle" reveals the same thing. Amy Adams is fantastic in the movie, doing the best work of her stellar career. She has an on again/off again British accent which is proper for her character, but in contrast Jennifer Lawrence seems to start out trying a Long Island accent, which is completely off and sounds like a Boston accent more than anything, but then she just stops trying altogether at some point. Christian Bale is a great and often under rated actor whom I have deep respect for, but here he feels rushed and unfocused, and his New York accent is poor at best. Bradley Cooper, another actor I respect, doesn't even try to attempt a New York accent even though his character is obviously born and raised in the city. These may be small things to some people, but they are the things that separate a good movie from a great one, and they undermine the narrative, drama and believability of the film.
Another oddity is the casting in two smaller but vital roles. I love Louis CK, he plays an FBI middle manager in the film, and while he is funny, he has his usual goatee. No FBI middle manager in the late 70's, or now, would have a goatee, it just wouldn't happen. If you can't commit to the character and the time period, then you undermine the integrity of the film. Another casting error is Jack Huston as a gangster. Huston is a fine actor and is great on "Boardwalk Empire", but he has a softness and kindness to his eyes and face which make him a less than intimidating presence, this works wonderfully on "Boardwalk Empire" as he struggles with his violent past and present, but here it undermines a critical plot point in the film where he is supposed to be a dangerous and scary guy. And while we are at it, Jennifer Lawrence, who is someone I really, truly like as an actress and presence, has an improvised dialogue with Christian Bale where she charmingly talks about Wayne Dyer's book "The Power of Intention", that's cute and all, but that book was published in 2002, not 1977. Is it totally her fault for the improv? No, but it never should have made the final cut of the film, and is just another example of sloppiness and laziness on the part of the director who is the one with final say on all of these issues.
"American Hustle", like "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter" before it, is a great idea for a film, has an extraordinary cast of actors in it, and seems like it should be great. The problem is, it simply isn't great, and neither are "The Fighter" or "Silver Linings Playbook". They all look flat, they are all conformist in style and structure, and they all have zero dramatic resonance because they lack the courage to commit to drama.
I admit, it is pretty unfair of me to compare David O. Russell as a director to Martin Scorsese, who is arguably one of the greatest filmmakers in history. But when you make a film like "American Hustle", and even "The Fighter", you are bringing that comparison onto yourself. One of the biggest differences between the two directors is that Scorsese makes dramatic films that can be very funny at times, while Russell makes comedic films that attempt to be dramatic. The result is Russell's films are flimsy, shallow and crumble upon repeated viewings, while Scorsese's are among the greatest in cinematic history.
I think that the other huge difference between Scorsese and Russell is that Russell brings a certain effeminate quality to his films which doesn't serve the type of films he is trying to make very well at all. Another way to say that is, David O. Russell, and his films, have no balls. Scorsese on the other hand has balls as big as hot air balloons. If Scorsese were directing this film here are a few things that may be different. First off, when Jack Huston's gangster character finds out that Bale's Irving might be working with the feds, he wouldn't simply put a burlap sack over his head (ooooh…it must have been so dark and scratchy with that sack over your head!!), no, he would've beat the hell out of him and maybe broken a few of his fingers or put his head in a vice or cut off his nose or ears. Secondly, Irving would've taken the government's offer of immunity and lived out the rest of his life in Wichita, ordering pasta with marinara sauce but being served egg noodles with ketchup instead, all with no ears and alone, because Amy Adams character would have died of a drug over dose in a hotel room while turning tricks to get her heroin fix. Thirdly, Bradley Cooper's Richie would end up trapped in a loveless, vacant marriage to his fiancé and working at a toll booth on the Jersey turnpike dreaming of what could have been after the FBI fired him for screwing up the entire operation. Finally Jennifer Lawrence would end up like all the wives in "Goodfellas", wearing cheap polyester blend outfits and too much makeup, drinking herself to a slow death while her gangster husband runs around behind her back.
That is the final and foremost difference between Scorsese and Russell, Scorsese doesn't sugar coat it, he doesn't force upon the story a happy ending, he doesn't shy away from the brutal, ugly truth. He lets his characters hang themselves upon their own failures and let's them live the unhappily ever after that they've earned. Sadly, Russell is not brave enough to do that, he must have the happy ending, the tv movie finish, that everything is alright and these people with all their flaws still have all their dreams come true. And that is the thing that bothers me the most about his movies…they are lies, and they convince us to believe the lies we tell ourselves. Scorsese cares too much about cinema to use it to lie to people.
In conclusion, "American Hustle" lives up to it's name by conning and hustling people into thinking it is a great film. It isn't. It is a rushed, sloppy, cheap knock off that deserves absolutely none of the critical acclaim it is garnering. It isn't the worst film ever made, but it certainly shouldn't be talked about as a great film at all.
Oh, and hey...David O. Russell…..go get your fuckin shine box.