“American Hustle” has too many fantastic performances for its own good

It might come across a bit strange, but almost directly after the credits to “American Hustle” started rolling (or even earlier, during the film) I felt this pulsating need to go back home and watch Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”. I find it even stranger, given that up to that point I have never seen it before, but somehow the newest addition to David O. Russell’s filmography pointed me to take it off the shelf, so that I could once and for all cross it off my list of shame.

But wait… There’s more. Only after I got round to see Scorsese’s epic, my opinion on “American Hustle” started to look more positive; before I was quite convinced the film was mediocre at best, but seeing it in context of “Casino” made me rethink my stance, which I find disturbingly amusing, as never in my life I would have thought those two films could have so much in common. I don’t quite know whether David O. Russell had planned for this, but assuming it was all coincidental, “American Hustle” becomes more and more amusing as a story.

I seem to remember “American Hustle” being touted as ‘the next big thing’ in the run-up to last year’s Academy Awards, all the while the hype was being drummed up for “Silver Linings Playbook”. Given how I loved that film, and how I regard “The Fighter” as an all-around phenomenal piece of film-making, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that at that time my expectations for “American Hustle” were already considerable in size and could only grow from there. Seriously, having written and directed not one, but two stunning tour de force films in a row, I thought David O. Russell would bring it home for the third time in this period drama(slash)comedy loosely based on the ABSCAM story.

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If, like me, you somehow missed out on the 70’s and/or were born in a country, where no-one would give a rat’s ass about the news from the US, then the word ABSCAM would most likely mean nothing to you. And I knowingly chose not to investigate this topic before watching “American Hustle”, as if to enhance the theatrical experience. The story is only (as the opening shot states explicitly) partially grounded in reality and in it we meet a pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who when caught red-handed by a hot-blooded FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), are given ‘an offer they can’t refuse’. In order to regain their freedom and walk away unscathed, the pair agrees to help DiMaso in setting up a massive sting operation, wherein they would bring a bunch of corrupt political figures down on charges of corruption. In order to achieve that, they would have one of the FBI agents pose as an Arab sheikh, who would like to ‘donate money’ to the cause of turning Atlantic City into the East Coast’s Las Vegas (hence ABSCAM – AraB SCAM, I believe). Little do they realize, the sheer scale of the operation in combination with the volatile nature and agent DiMaso’s delusions of grandeur with the added bonus of Rosenfeld’s eavesdropping mentally unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) being thrown into the mix, the group might end up with a bit too much on their plates.

I think the best way to describe my feelings towards “American Hustle” is to use the word ‘confused’. Because I couldn’t possibly believe that a story with such a stellar cast of high profile actors directed (and penned) by a high-calibre persona of David O. Russell could come across as bland, but yet it did. My ridiculously hyped expectations might have had something to do with it, I won’t deny that, but I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by what ”American Hustle” had to offer. It’s not that the film lacks in any way, because the performances alone are simply stunning, but overall it drags sometimes and all too often goes into boring territory. It only goes to show that it’s not enough to be friendly with a bunch of ‘hot actors’ (apart from the ones mentioned, the list includes Jeremy Renner as a good-hearted, but corrupt mayor, and Robert De Niro as a high profile mobster) to produce a great film. I realize that David O. Russell simply likes to work with those guys, and they like to work with him (naturally), but I fear that from this point onwards, his films might start their slow descent towards well-cast clichés.

What “American Hustle” could really use is a compelling story, because as it stands, the plot is sufficiently weak to be foreshadowed by the performances alone. There’s nothing wrong with that, because I will always appreciate Christian Bale’s very physical and wholehearted commitment to the role, or Jennifer Lawrence’s way of delivering dialogue that makes me believe she actually is not ‘all there’ emotionally; but in the longer terms, beyond the signature O. Russell’s small talk, there’s not much that would make “American Hustle” memorable, let alone a classic. The main problem I had with the film’s story lies in its seemingly complex nature that is additionally hidden within the vast network of interpersonal issues between the characters. This is where I would go on to postulate that David O. Russell was not the best man to bring the ABSCAM story to the screen in a compelling manner, as in my opinion, he got his priorities wrong while making “American Hustle”.

In his defence, he does know how to flesh out a character and make it pulsate with life, but in a film like that, which is story-driven, the characters need to know their place and work in service of the story, and instead their powerful nature (and Amy Adams’ cleavage) diverts attention from what should actually be the focus of the story – the elaborate con. And there’s only one person I could think of, that could film a story like that (especially in a period setting) and do it justice, and it’s Martin Scorsese. And this is where it gets weird…

After a quick google search it has become clear that I am certainly not the first one to drop Scorsese’s name in a review of “American Hustle” with the word ‘rip-off’ featuring prominently in some of the write-ups out there. While for a seasoned veteran critic it is almost second nature to draw parallels between “American Hustle” and “Goodfellas”, or “Casino”, I think there’s more to this than meets the eye, simply because from where I was sitting, I felt a very strong Scorsese vibe emanating from O. Russell’s newest piece, and I have never even seen “Casino” before. Surely, you could postulate “Casino” being a rip-off in its own right drawing from “Goodfellas”, but I think it would be doing Scorsese’s work a disservice.

If you look through Scorsese’s filmography, you’ll immediately notice that among the myriad ‘instant classics’ he directed, there’s only a handful he has also written the script for. And that handful includes “Mean Streets”, “Goodfellas”, and “Casino”. This big trio is truly representative of something you could call ‘Scorsese’s style’, because of the creative control he assumed over those particular films.  Therefore, I believe it is unjust to call any of those film’s rip-offs based on their recurring features, like the multi-personal narrative style and multi-faceted house-of-cards-like plotlines converging into a massive climax.

Now, putting “American Hustle” against the collective backdrop of stylistic traits present in “Casino”, or “Goodfellas” turns this film into a completely different beast; now it’s homage to Scorsese’s work and everything starts to make a bit more sense. Initially, I couldn’t get past the alien feeling of the narrative, or the scattered plotline, but in that context it seems David O. Russell made those choices knowingly to evoke the atmosphere of a mob epic drama; yet he couldn’t restrain himself from ‘doing his thing’ with the characters. In effect, “American Hustle” looks to me now a bit like a poor-man’s “Casino”, but at least I can put this film in context. Without that stylistic reference, nothing about this film makes much sense and it boils down to a bag of performances (top-notch, mind you); which is not enough for me to call a film ‘great’. It still is very interesting to me to regard “American Hustle” as inspired by Scorsese’s work and it certainly makes me wonder, what it would be like if the roles were reversed. I most certainly would love to see Scorsese’s attempt at writing characters and dialogue in homage to David O. Russell. Would you?

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