If you ever need proof that it is possible for human beings to hold opposing ideas in our heads and believe both at the same time, please consider the way basically everyone considers the Oscars. The first idea: The Oscars are a flawed and bogus measure of quality. The second idea: The Oscars are a big deal and a huge honor.
It is keeping these two notions in my mind—somehow believing that the awards that chose Ordinary People the year Raging Bull was nominated nonetheless matter—that has led me to my current state of slavering aggravation with David O. Russell’s American Hustle. It’s a movie that is not horrible by any stretch—it’s no Crash—but is way too messy and lopsided and charmed with itself to deserve to be identified, even for a night, as the greatest movie in all the land. American Hustle, currently nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, reminds me more and more of last year’s winner Argo: a well-acted, coolly costumed, high-energy period caper that is exactly as well-made as all movies should be, but, against the backdrop of our superhero blockbuster economy, gets mistaken for something truly special. American Hustle, like Argo, is perfectly good, but not nearly as good as it thinks it is. It’s sloppy and self-obsessed, masquerading as edgy when it only ever plays it safe. It is, in the parlance of the film’s original title, some bullshit.
From the very start—charismatic, schlubby con artist Irving (Christian Bale) doing his ’do—the movie is overflowing with delightful baubles and goodies: the outfits, the hair curlers, the deep V’s, the ’70s jams, the banter, the yelling, the twirling, the big juicy acting. Russell loves his actors and the characters they play and the clothes they wear so much that he lets his movie get shaggy and baggy and, eventually, utterly incoherent. Strutting through subway steam in their very best disco duds, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper look hilarious and cool, but well-choreographed music videos do not a movie make. (If they did, where, oh where, is Spring Breakers’ Academy Award nod?) The cast looks bladow and the movie zips along, vroom vroom, at the expense of the plot, which I challenge you to explain to me right now in 50 words or fewer. (None of those words can be “Then there’s a montage” or “Wikipedia Abscam.”)
In The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort regularly interrupts his own narration when it starts to head into the specifics of his stock scams. You don’t want to know about this, he tells his audience before heading back to the debauchery. Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter made a conscious choice to elide complicated plot transactions; American Hustle, made in Scorsese’s lineage, exhibits no such intentionality, though the mechanics of the plot are hardly any clearer than Wolf of Wall Street’s, despite them allegedly being explained to us.
Toward the end of Hustle, it becomes clear that the screenplay (by Russell and Eric Warren Singer) was actually smuggling a plot in its back pocket the whole time: Irving and his partner in crime Sydney (Adams) pull off a con on the FBI with a plot straight from The Sting, one sprung on the audience in very much the same way—we have no tip off. But Russell treats this reveal with no particular care. It’s barely a climax at all. It’s as if The Sting couldn’t wait to get finished with the caper the whole movie was leading up to because it really wanted to get back to the business of ogling Paul Newman’s décolletage.
Noisy and fun movies sure are noisy and fun, but if that were the criteria for Best Picture, Michael Bay would have a hangar full of Oscars. This is a movie that believes a good screenplay is simply a collection of solid set pieces and one-liners that should otherwise get the hell out of the way of its actors. There are a number of very engaging performances in American Hustle—because performances are all the movie cares about. It’s like a boat with very beautiful sails and a hole in the keel. Keep looking up, maybe you won’t notice the whole thing is basically underwater.
And even Hustle’s performances are very much in the spirit of the rest of the film: showy as a sequin dress with a slit down to the navel. Christian Bale, packing on the pounds, makes for a charismatic Irving with the kind of big performance that announces itself as major in every scene. Bradley Cooper as FBI agent Richie DiMaso twitches like he’s been hooked up to electrodes. He, like the movie, is allergic to ever being still. And Jennifer Lawrence wins the audience over not by becoming Irving’s much younger, high-strung wife Rosalyn in the Streepian sense, but by supplying some damn elbow grease. What Lawrence does as Rosalyn is what Lawrence does as Lawrence: She shows up so game, so spunky, with such a willingness to do her job she’s undeniable. She’s winning in the role not because she is so very good in it, but because she is trying so very hard in it. The only actor who seems like she is not, first and foremost, desperately trying to entertain you is Amy Adams, who, as Grantland’s Wesley Morris put it in his review, is not the “sort of actress” who gets caught up in out-acting anyone.
Maybe American Hustle is just out to hustle us, the audience. (In one scene Adams and Cooper literally do the hustle in front of us.) The whole movie is a big show, so wacky and distracting that we, like marks, lose sight of the money. But hustlers have a nasty side. American Hustle’s characters are striving and machinating and tortured, and yet so beloved by Russell they are never in any real danger. When Robert de Niro appears as a mob boss who, like real mob bosses, is willing to kill people, for one brief glorious moment Irving, Sydney, and Richie realize they are in over their heads. But then Russell lets the water out of the pool. The film pulls back, chickens out on the realistic possibility of anything life-threatening happening in this underworld of low lives, scam artists, shady characters, and wise guys. Ugly consequences wouldn’t be any fun at all.
The movie wraps up with Irving and Sydney in suburbia, cozily raising his stepson. Moviegoers may warm to this, knee-jerk-associating the movie’s conclusion with millions of other neat finishes, but it undercuts the only really great thing about the movie: its characters’ weird, exotic, naughty energy. The film concludes by treating its idiosyncratic rascals like the Cleavers, apparently without even realizing that for people like Sydney and Irving, life in the domesticated burbs wouldn’t be pleasant but claustrophobic and cruel. And that right there, the unearned happy ending that sends moviegoers out of their seats with a smile on their face, is not the American hustle—it’s just the Hollywood one.