American Hustle ★★★½

It’s easy to see why American Hustle is a critical darling of the moment. It’s got a stacked cast (too many 5-star actors to even advertise), loads of aesthetic styling, and a powerhouse writer/director at the helm. It seems obvious that this would be an Oscar contender. But that’s also the film’s biggest weakness: it’s so incredibly obvious that you can tangibly see the effort that’s being put into it. The fourth wall is still up, but the floor is transparent and we can see the machinery that drives this thing.

David O. Russell again demonstrates his exceptional ability at crafting a consistent style, and isn’t afraid to play with framing and camera movements, or to even make some unconventional choices in lighting and sequencing. He’s not afraid to allow characters to explode or deconstruct themselves, nor does he feel that character motivations need be explicit or, indeed, even present. This allows a unique style of performance - one that perhaps now can be considered uniquely “Russellian” - as much as it affords an original visual aesthetic. But these choices, it should be pretty clear to anyone with a brain, don’t all work. In fact, a lot of them fail.

On the technical side, it’s hard not to notice the camera drift and the choices made in moving the viewpoint throughout a shot. One one hand, this adds to the tone of the period, where framing in the 70s was a bit more fluid, when zooms and pans were a little more free. Here though, more often than should be noticeable, many of these camera movements feel like little more than ill-considered planning or the type of settling that happens at the end of a long shoot day. But the tone of the film - the texture and the visual quality, the wardrobes and sets - capture a microcosm of 70s New Jersey that feels authentic, even when much of what happens within it does not.

The performances are interesting, and often incredible. But unlike the style and tone of the film, they are far from consistent. There’s no single performer that feels thoroughly convincing, and only rarely are we let into the logic behind a character’s decisions. Why is Rosalyn so eager to meddle? Why do characters erupt when they do? Christian Bale and Amy Adams are perhaps the most consistent and strong performers, but the standout of the film to me was actually Jeremy Renner (who I haven’t liked in anything since The Hurt Locker) who plays his caricature perfectly, while Louis CK also delivers a brilliant sketch of an FBI middle-manager who gets continually and completely walked over. Bradley Cooper’s performance seems lacking in the moments he really needs to be compelling, and Jennifer Lawrence is (as usual) exceptional... except for the fact that she seems to have been acting for a completely different film, one that is much more of a comedy. It’s obvious that Russell cares more about character interactions and relationships than he does about plot arcs and layered thematic threads.

There are themes - like the introduction of the demographics of Camden or Louis CK’s ice-fishing story - that feel like important touchstones or metaphors that will tie in nicely with the main thrust of the story, and then are completely forgotten about. They aren’t in there to augment the narrative of the film, they’re there to make characters more interesting. If you look at the story being told without factoring in the relationships involved, it’s fairly rudimentary, and much of the uncertainty about where the plot is going is not a construct of compelling twists and turns - it’s actually due to the fact that the characters do a pretty terrible job of presenting their goals and motivations with any real clarity. The plot is muddy not because it’s complicated, but because Russell doesn’t write dialogue that makes it clear what is happening. Instead, we have to wait and watch, and then we can say, “Oh. That’s what this is about.” Hell, there’s only one twist in the plot, and you could see it coming from a mile ahead if only the character motivations could be understood at any point along the way.

In short, I don’t think this is the type of story David O. Russell knows how to tell. But it’s still a ride that worth’s hopping onto, and the laughs and aesthetic are absolutely worth the price of admission. The film opens with the title slate, “Some of this actually happened.” I’ll submit that a critical review like this could be summated with the line, “Some of this actually works pretty well."