As If By Magic, The Conman Appeared: David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013) – Blu-ray review
The shaggiest of shaggy (under)dog stories, Russell shares his palpable humanism by making the film long, indulgent and stylish enough for us to luxuriate in it.
(David O. Russell, 2013)
It not be immediately apparent from his indie roots, but David O. Russell is Hollywood’s new Frank Capra. No matter how fractured the characters, there’s always a happy ending. Think about it. In Three Kings, war profiteers are transformed into humanitarian aiders; in The Fighter, a crack addict finds redemption guiding his underdog brother to boxing glory; in Silver Linings Playbook, two mentally ill souls find solace in each other through dancing. In a crazy world, Russell’s characters are wounded idealists, just trying to make the best of things.
American Hustle is the finest example of the strange chivalry and honour in Russell’s films. On the surface, this is a deeply cynical work – the original title was American Bullshit, and its circular plot is a feeding frenzy of corruption, greed and ambition that sucks people up and spits them back out on the street. This certainly isn’t the Capra of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, with its whiter-than-hero. As con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) notes, “there’s no black and white, just endless grey,” and there’s no shock that mayors, Congressmen or Senators might take back-handers: it’s a given.
But in the topsy-turviness of the era (it’s apt that this takes place after Watergate), the politicians genuinely want to improve their communities AS WELL AS get rich on the side, while the nominal ‘hero’ – Bradley Cooper’s overambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso – turns out to be the film’s most destructive force. Into this are Irving and his lover/muse Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), both of whom are playing the same ambiguous system but on a smaller scale. Irving is a doting father but unhappily married; Sydney wants to escape from her limited life options and recreates herself as trashily glam “English” aristocrat Lady Edith Greensly. Their lives are transformed when Irving introduces Sydney to the back room of his shop where discarded dry cleaning is available for their shared fantasy of new suits and new identities. Is David O. Russell a fan of classic 1970s cartoon Mr Benn?
Like that iconic creation, the characters here are looking for colour in their lives – and that’s what the film does, too. Russell could so easily resort to cheap, easy laughs by poking fun at the costumes and hairdos; instead, he basks in their sartorial choices. The opening sequence sees Irving painstakingly position his comb-over with glued-on hairpiece and elaborate hairspray. When Richard messes up his do, it’s like a slap in the face. [And Richard can hardly talk. He has his own routine, a roller for each tiny curl; few films lay bare the roots of fashion as a character study.]
For all the convolutions of the plot, there’s probably only enough narrative here for a brisk, 90 minute con artist movie. But Russell doesn’t want to con us. The remaining fifty minutes swap the fakery for the reality; indeed, Sydney’s refrain throughout the film is a desire to stop being fake. For all the stylistic borrowings (Goodfellas, by way of Boogie Nights) Russell is no mere copycat and fills the screen with the same brusque, bruised but infectious humour that drove The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He positions his camera where Oscar Wilde once wrote, in the gutter but looking up at the stars; the length of the film is indelibly linked to just how much distance lies between those two places.
Sydney/Lady Edith isn’t the only one juggling separate lives. Jennifer Lawrence’s barnstorming performance as Irving’s wife shows a woman who is bored of living a boring life; her need for vitality acts like a tectonic plate on the smooth running of Irving and Richie’s schemes, but Russell takes pains to show it is caused by indolence rather than malice. Even at home, she’s the kind of woman who sets fire to the kitchen (twice!) or pimps up housecleaning by singing along to Live And Let Die. Cooper is ringmaster of his co-opted assistants but a wage slave in the office locked in eternal battle with bureaucratic boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.). And Bale, irrepressible during the film’s heady first act, gradually becomes sadder and smaller behind his tinted glasses as he cedes control to Richie… no longer enjoying the ride… until a final, audacious con restores the sparkle.
An actor’s film? It’s a people’s film, driven by mise en scene film rather than montage because Russell doesn’t want these moments to end. Take the subplot whereby Stoddard attempts to tell an anecdote about an ice fishing trip. It could so easily be cut but Russell keeps the gag spinning, a shaggy dog tale without an ending because Richie – desperate for meaning – keeps interrupting it. The film occupies the same territory, as Russell’s manic energy rushes hither and thither, improvising a succession of sparkling scenes between his A-game cast, interrupting the moment in order to savour it all the more.