Martin Scorsese has his Goodfellas. David O. Russell answers with his Mediocre-fellas.
Set in a similarly colorful and equally absurd universe of seedy, over-dramatized miscreants, American Hustle relays the mostly-true details of the controversial ABSCAM case, admitting up front in a title card that only “some of this actually happened.” Playing fast and loose with the facts isn’t the issue dogging Hustle, however. The picture can’t switch into a higher gear as Russell maneuvers this sluggish crime comedy through grotesque, cartoonish but pointless transitions as his black comedy searches for a laugh.
Decked out in the appropriately hideous attire of 1978, the FBI – led by maverick, sociopathic agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) – stage an elaborate long con meant to ensnare numerous corrupt politicians, including an opportunistic New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), a handful of greedy U.S. congressmen, and a crooked senator. To help him pull off this complicated scheme, DiMaso blackmails Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), low-level grifters who were getting “fat” off of easily duped Jersey entrepreneurs.
Like most hastily hatched schemes, the plan is designed to be simple. What a boring movie that would make. DiMaso’s strategy eventually grows unwieldy, targeting those with broader political influence. In turn, the stakes also raise … putting Rosenfeld and Prosser in boiling-hot water while also threatening the well being of numerous seemingly innocent bystanders (including Rosenfeld’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence).
The Goodfellas reference isn’t by accident. Russell employs his usual suspects, but digs deep into Scorsese’s trademark bag of tricks for Hustle, bending his distended story around filmmaking gimmicks we associate with the legendary director (but ones that, admittedly, do not belong to Scorsese, alone).
The biggest similarity has to be the picture’s over-reliance on narration, with Hustle characters talking – and talking, and talking – us through an unnecessarily convoluted script. Con games require exposition. The last thing a director wants to do in a bait-and-switch story is leave the audience in the dust. But Hustle, adopting the breathy tone of a 1940s noir, explains and explains until the unusual becomes mundane. And given the amount of “unusual” on display here, that’s saying a lot.
Russell, in the process, does continue to establish his own film vocabulary. Hustle has as much in common with the blue-collar bombast of The Fighter as it does with Scorsese’s gaudy, dangerous Casino. The camera violently pans and scans, zooming in on a character’s hands, or tracking a briefcase filled with money as if it contains a bomb, ready to explode. As he has done in movies past, Russell laces a bed of recognizable period tunes behind his action. Yet even that’s a mixed bag. He makes good use of Elton John’s Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, then nearly torpedoes Lawrence’s burgeoning career by asking her to sing Wings’ Live and Let Die in a cringingly embarrassing scene. Hustle actually lacks that one memorable marriage of scene and song, a sequence that drills its way into the core of a moment the way Led Zeppelin’s What Is (And What Should Never Be) captured the heartbreaking confusion of Cooper’s vicious breakdown in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. Then again, Hustle often seems to be chasing the deliberately messy structure that worked so well in Playbook but doesn’t gel here.
You end up noticing these glaring problems because Hustle ultimately doesn’t crackle with the energy needed to sell the con. The first hour passes by because it’s easy to stay busy criticizing the period-glam of Russell’s garish cast. The “razzle dazzle,” as Lawrence’s suburban housewife describes it. The movie opens with an extended shot of a bloated Bale – looking like iconic producer Robert Evans – doctoring the disastrous hairpiece that rests atop his head like rescued road kill. From there, we’re practically dared by Russell to look away from Renner’s Frankie Vali coif, Adams’ persistent side boob, Cooper’s greasy perm and Lawrence’s nail polish (which smells like an intoxicating blend of flowers and garbage).
But it’s all window dressing. The clothes, the hair, the accents, the “science oven” … they’re all distractions that are supposed to keep us entertained because, without them, Russell’s holding an empty box of half-truths, silly caricatures, and disappointing conclusions. The hustle ends up being on those who came to American Hustle seeking substance behind the flash.