In short, I liked American Hustle better when it was called Goodfellas, had characters I cared about, and wasn’t a boring, empty spectacle I couldn’t wait never to see again.
Which means it’s probably going to be as popular, well-reviewed, and beloved as Argo, my pick as 2012’s worst movie of the year.
What’s wrong with American Hustle? To begin with, everything. Should we start with the script? Let’s start with the script.
Written originally by Eric Warren Singer and titled American Bullshit, it’s based on the FBI’s late ‘70s ABSCAM (Arab Scam) sting, in which the the FBI, with the help of a con-man, nabbed a bunch of congress-critters for taking bribes and kickbacks and whatnot.
Then director David O. Russell got his hands on it. He made matters considerably more fictional by turning the characters into outrageous, over-the-top caricatures of actual human beings, and directing the movie like he thought he was Martin Scorsese.
David O. Russell is not Martin Scorsese. He tries his damnedest to churn out his own Goodfellas with American Hustle—the costumes, the multiple perspective voice-overs, the editing, the rock soundtrack with song after song piling up in single scenes, the story centered on, essentially, crooks, the camera tracking in on faces for dramatic effect—but it seems as though he stole everything from Scorsese except the beating heart that drives his (Scorsese’s) best movies. There is nothing beating at the core of American Hustle, except maybe me, with a stick.
So there’s this con man, Irving Rosenfeld, played with gusto by Christian Bale, which I know, I was about to get into it here, but first a word on the performances. They’re not bad (exceptions below). Bale gives it his all, as usual. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence do fine jobs. And this is what every positive review is going to harp on: how great the performances are. Yes, Russell uses (mostly) good actors, and writes them long, emotional scenes to play, and dresses them in outrageous ‘70s fashion, and Bale’s got this amazing comb-over and a huge gut, but the real truth of the movie—you read it here first!—is that it stars most prominently Amy Adams’s breasts, to the point where you start getting bored of them—bored of breasts! It’s an outrage.
It all starts with a brief montage of Rosenfeld’s checkered childhood—you know, like in Goodfellas—and continues with adult Rosenfeld meeting Sydney Prosser (Adams), a stripper with no identity who the moment she finds out he’s a con man signs on to aid and abet. She pretends to be a British heiress or something, and they con desperate men into giving them cash for nonexistent loans. Also, they sell fake paintings.
Then they get busted by FBI agent Richie DeMaso, played by Bradley Cooper as some kind of baffling, moronic loon, the kind you’d expect to show up in a movie where the crooks he’s busting are played by Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
Looking at Cooper’s credits I realize I’ve seen exactly two of his movies: Wet Hot American Summer (who knew?) and The Hangover. I can’t say I’m eager to see any more. Look, I don’t want to be mean about it, but I have no idea what he’s doing in here. I spent a good part of the movie wondering whether or not I was supposed to believe he was actually an FBI agent, or if some kind of larger con was going on.
Even more confusing is that his FBI boss is played by Louis C.K. Their scenes together are from another planet. And not one of the good ones. I say this as a man who loves Louis C.K. If Louis asked me to marry him and bear his children, I’d do it. I want to tie him up in my basement rec room and feed him soup for the rest of his life. If I had a cloning machine, I’d replace every man on Earth with another Louis! But FBI chief Louis? Egads. It’s uncomfortably off.
Cooper’s not the only one with characterization issues. Everyone is so intent on being extreme, they lose track of any emotional through-line. Emotional outbursts feature in almost every scene, and none of them mean anything because the characters have no souls. They’re two-dimensional fakes enacting one of those crooks-being-crazy-crooks-conning-each-other movies.
Only there’s no con, either. I kept waiting for the big con to be revealed, to see how somebody had been playing somebody else for the whole movie. Spoiler alert: nobody is conning anyone. They’re all just nuts. Actually there’s one con in the last five minutes of the movie. It’s exactly one scene long.
When the con is then immediately revealed, it’s supposed to provide the big WOO-HOO moment of the good cons beating the bad old FBI man. But not caring about the cons and not caring about the FBI man and not caring about the one-scene-con, it’s difficult to feel anything but relief that the movie’s actually going to end.
It’s around the end that we’re told what a genius con-man Rosenfeld is. Best in the country, it’s said. But—but—he just sells fake art and fake loans! And wears bad ties!
In another scene, rather late in the movie, Sydney reveals to DiMaso that she’s not actually British. She’s a boring American from New Mexico or something. Now way back at the beginning of the movie he busts her. When she’s pretending to be British with Rosenfeld. And then DiMaso makes a deal with them to help the FBI set up crooks, which leads to a fake Arab millionaire (hence ABSCAM) and crooked politicians and the mob and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremey Renner, not faring well in his over-the-top regular New Jersey nice guy performance), so obviously he knows she’s not British.
But no. She tells him she’s American. The accent, she says, was fake. He’s floored. And I thought–she’s been using a British accent? Was I supposed to know that? Does her lying about it to DiMaso change the story at all? No? Great.
It’s another example of Russell creating emotional character exchanges with zero connection to what’s come before. Was Sydney playing DiMaso in some way? In this scene, we’re supposed to believe she has been. Problem is, she hasn’t. There is no con. She’s just…I don’t even know. Playing. In general.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence is Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn. Her job in the movie is to be dumb but say she’s smart, blow up microwave ovens, and almost screw up the one-scene con. She plays it to the hilt. She has a scene excised from another movie in a bathroom with Sydney that ends with an angry kiss. Why? No, my friend, rather, why not?
Robert DeNiro shows up for a scene as an old mobster, in case the connection to Goodfellas hasn’t bludgeoned you quite to death yet. He’s fine. He’s DeNiro. He has one scene, then he’s gone. Nice day’s work if you can get it.
I don’t understand this movie at all. What’s it even about? Goodfellas was about America, fer chrissakes!
American Hustle is a hustle all right. It hustled me out of two hours.