American Hustle ★★

"Russell's most exciting moments are three-layered: a familiar narrative or comic convention is exaggerated into a transgressive act, then grounded with a flurry of humanizing psychological detail."
-Dan Sallitt, 2002.

American Hustle would easily fit into the same realm as Pain & Gain, The Bling Ring, and Spring Breakers in the excess/over-belief in the American Dream run of films that amounted to a lot of pointless trend pieces this year. Like these films, it is also fueled through the specific vision of its director, David O. Russell, which is why it is more beloved in some circles, and more easily scorned in others, as it is the only one of these films to sympathize with this ideology. Bay risibly mocked it; Coppola kept her anthropological distance; Korine got drunk on it. Russell actually believes in the kind of faux-BS he sells in the movie, but only because he knows that BS sells both within the scope of his movie ("People believe what they want to believe" which is said somewhere like two dozen times) and most likely his intended audience.

Watching this film is both frustrating and fascinating. I'm trying to read a pulse, and the film seems dead for 10 straight minutes, only to oddly erupt for a brief minute before returning to the grave. Nobody seems to be sure what they are doing here, and Russell rarely ever establishes stakes or exactly how any of the film's (seemingly) elaborate plot is supposed to work. Russell is more interested in interaction, in the how people act in situations. A great director would not necessarily have to split these, but Russell always uses situations that make No Fucking Sense (Iraq in Three Kings; the dance contest and subsequent bet in Silver Linings Playbook). If this is a caper movie however, the fact remains that its plot is so damn uninteresting and it spends 90% of its time of characters standing around in rooms looking like they have no clue what they are supposed to be doing, which is less a subversive statement than poor writing. It would also help if Russell's namedroping of stuff like Watergate or Nixon didn't feel like a "remember we're in the 1970s! lol" moment.

What is most weirdly fascinating here is the relationship between acting and being a phony and needing to believe it and how tenuous that can be (work on your hair for 10 minutes; someone ruins it in a second). Everything looks cheap and cartoonish, every shot and situation borrowed from a second hand store, but this is told to us early on when we get the montage sequence in the laundry shop. Russell is not just borrowing Scorsese; he's also openly stealing from Scorsese's descendants Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. He's willing to crassly grab things without shame, to make his characters into cheap whores and buffoons and still give them a happy ending because why not. There are a lot of Big Statements About The American Way Of Life, and the film's needless triple and quadruple underlining of everyone of these is pretty unforgivable, but in the same way that anyone who enjoyed James Franco shouting about the American Dream 500 times (I did not) would have to acknowledge as well.

This film is filled with phonies, but it knows it's all phony. Christian Bale shows up trying to do some sort of cheap imitation of Robert De Niro, only to be shown up by the real thing (complete in a Scorsese-esque costume design). A flashback to the 1930s is purposefully fake. Russell can't help but veer left whenever one expects a right, though these are less trangressive than confusing—I still have no idea why Amy Adams screams in excess (crying or orgasm?) during the club bathroom scene, or why the film sets up a racial dynamic in Camden to never do anything about it. An Important Anecdote about ice fishing—the kind of thing another movie would use to explain its Important Themes—keeps returning only to be cast aside and never finished (I laughed at this, though this would be much funnier if there weren't another 50 scenes of the actual theme explanation like the Rembrant one). And maybe one day Russell will make me believe in any sort of an emotional pathos for one of his characters.

Russell's visual work is weird. His frames and compositions are flat, but his movement gives the sense there's something dynamic happening here, enough that he'll occasionally run across a moment of wit—Cooper catching Adams in the strobe light had something of a unique texture, and let's let JLaw sing "Live and Let Die" right into the camera is worth something I guess. He throws random front lights on his characters faces that illuminate them awkward colors, and his production designer's goal always chooses the most gaudy of colors for the background. There's no underlying principle here except Russell's own BS vision of America, which he knows is BS, but he goes for anyways. This is more tolerable than Silver Linings (mainly because I'm not offended by trashing New Jersey in the way I am by mental illness), nowhere near the satirical genius of Three Kings. It was kind of fascinating to watch all this energy and still feel completely bored by it at the same time, to see a film that's climax was a sort of "that's it?" moment, but that's sort of a uniquely Russell sensibility.

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