In a film all about bullshi**ing, the biggest lie in American Hustle is told by the movie itself: it pretends to be a film of substance when in fact, under its glitzy façade, lies a great big chasm of nothingness.
The lie begins with its title, the prefix promising a level of irony-tinged, zeitgeisty critique that should appear but never does. American Hustle has ten times the pizazz of its titular counterparts Beauty, Psycho and Gigolo, but none of the depth (we’ll leave out Pie for the purposes of the argument).
Aptly, and with abundant justification, David O. Russell's work of surface-level extravagance has found itself shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Costume Design – a judgement that no one will be arguing with anytime soon. The film sits in the listings for nine other categories, including one each for its director and four stars – again, no great travesty there. More bemusing, though, is its nomination for the big one: Best Picture.
It’s easy to read this as less a reward for the film’s actual quality than an instinctive response to the profile and prestige of its associated names (call it ‘Benjamin Button syndrome’). Russell, after all, shares a crucial quality with his cast – namely Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence and, to a slightly lesser extent, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper – in that he’s engineered his way into that most sought-after of Venn diagram overlaps: where ticket-hawking mass-appeal intersects with hip, artsy auteurism.
And this could well be a large factor in its shortlisting – and yet the shortlisting is, in essence, only an extension of the sturdily enthusiastic critical reception it’s enjoyed since its release. It’s all a bit baffling for a film which, for all its undeniable fun, doesn’t add up to a whole lot more than simple aesthetics.
None of this is to say that American Hustle isn’t a thoroughly decent film, and a joshingly entertaining one. Some of the finest Russell hallmarks make well-accomplished appearances – most notably the tendency for his characters’ authority-defying neuroses to trigger set-pieces of mounting chaos, something which epitomised Three Kings, still his most accomplished film to date. This time around, Russell lands one right on the money in one of the film’s central scenes, as Lawrence’s green-eyed drunkenness plants her cohorts directly in the sights of an eminent mob kingpin – an uncreditied cameo from a pleasingly rejuvenated Robert De Niro who radiates restrained, simmering menace as only he can.
It’s a terrific ten-minute cocktail of suspense, confusion and madcap humour, with the cast executing it all as splendidly as you'd expect them to. The problem, though, is that those ten minutes would work almost as well as a standalone short film as they do within the context of a two-hour escapade. It’s not the only example, either: the same could be said for a number of the film’s segments.
Not a scene exists within it in which an A-list actor isn’t doing or wearing something brassily attention-grabbing. Bale’s comb-over, Cooper’s flared suits, Adams’ outlandish necklines, Lawrence’s kitchen-gloved rendition of "Live and Let Die", the protagonist’s sweeping voiceover plucked straight from the vocal chords of Henry Hill. Louis C.K. even drops in to tell a few dryly comic anecdotes. All of these make for great viewing in the moment, but their sum total doesn't make for a great film. Russell and co are less drawing you into a meticulously constructed milieu than simply presenting one in front of you and awaiting the applause.
In a way, perhaps ten nominations from the Academy is strangely apt for American Hustle, and it would be all the more so if it took them all except the big one. After all, it’s a collection of undeniably brilliant elements, all performed stunningly, but which, once the film has been fully processed, add up to a hollow, underwhelming whole.
Once the dust had settled and I was no longer confronted with the bulging guts, gravity-defying hairpieces and oversized bow-ties that all linger far longer in the memory than any plot point, I found it difficult not to read American Hustle not only as a vague disappointment but also as an almighty missed opportunity. Russell, remember, is a director who’s no stranger to scathing critiques of political venality, and yet this – a film ostensibly about a political scandal – has nothing much to really say for itself. It pales in comparison to movies such as Three Kings, which was a scornful anti-establishment diatribe dressed up as a war film. American Hustle, though, is just a crime caper playing dress-up.
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