How ‘American Hustle’ Conned the Critics

Jennifer Lawrence American Hustle

REARVIEW: Critics love David O. Russell's latest. Not this critic. A second look for those who weren't taken by this sloppy comedy.

For months, the entertainment press has been writing about Martin Scorsese’s travails to bring his sprawling true-crime comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street” in by year’s end, so the film could compete in an already overcrowded Oscar derby. And while the public’s attention was thus misdirected, a far more unwieldy true-crime movie came together (or fell apart, as I see it) in relative quiet, suffering none of the bad press and escaping scot-free from the criticism that should have greeted its opening on Friday.

That movie, of course, is David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” a collection of flamboyant 1970s caricatures run amok: so much hairspray and polyester, it makes your brain hurt — and worse, overwhelms the already overcomplicated Abscam retelling at the center of the film.

Now, if you saw and loved “American Hustle” this past weekend, I don’t mean to rain on your parade. But if you emerged flabbergasted by what you had seen, your mind thoroughly boggled by the critical response — which has been nearly unanimous in its praise of this sloppy sprawl of a movie — then rest assured, you are not alone.

“American Hustle” is a mess, and though some of its champions seem to love that most about it, the whole affair appears to have been cobbled together in haste, off-script and with little consideration for the fine art of narrative. Arriving so swiftly on the heels of the director’s similarly batty films “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle” inadvertently reveals Russell’s shtick, and once you spot the pattern, the jig is up.

In short, what sets Russell’s movies apart from the pack is a certain anarchic energy, a freewheeling sense that his characters could behave in spontaneous, possibly even irrational ways at any given moment. For those raised on the polite tradition of Hollywood storytelling, this relatively unruly sensibility has a tendency to delight. Frankly, it feels more like real life than the stuffy, rehearsed performances served up by other movies, in which most shots derive from the 10th or 17th or 43rd take of a scene. Russell’s characters, by contrast, are free to squawk and stammer and peacock as much as they please, providing that same illicit pleasure that has overtaken so much contemporary comedy, in which improvisation is king (for the moment, at least).

Russell’s approach works when the material in question is tight and focused, allowing the director to garnish a manageable story with as much comedic lunacy as the movie can bear. That’s why last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” was such a delight: At the film’s core, it was a familiar, if somewhat simple-minded old-school romantic comedy, like something out of the 1940s, upon which Russell and his cast were free to go crazy.

With “Playbook,” you could hold the plot in the palm of your hand: A clinically bipolar guy (Bradley Cooper) and a hilariously uninhibited gal (Jennifer Lawrence) fall in love while rehearsing for a dance competition. Such comfortable familiarity made it possible for the movie’s true personality to emerge, as Russell let his two leads and the rest of his similarly unrestrained ensemble do loop-de-loops in character, introducing contradictions and other moments of refreshing unpredictability to the equation. The result felt spontaneous and alive, the way rowdy scenes from “The Fighter” had (although in that film, the electric energy brought by Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and the rest of their bonkers family eventually settled into a fairly routine boxing movie).

A few years back, a video of Russell sparring with actress Lily Tomlin on the set of “I Heart Huckabees” hit the Web, in which Tomlin complained about how difficult it was to deliver a performance when the director kept changing his mind. The video left the impression that Russell was difficult to work with, while his oeuvre, beginning with the semi-autobiographical incest comedy “Spanking the Monkey” and the no-less-dysfunctional family portrait “Flirting With Disaster,” hinted that the director himself might be mentally unwell, the way certain impressionistic paintings — by Goya, Van Gogh or Munch — give viewers the sense of being trapped inside the head of a crazy person.

The cast of “American Hustle,” by contrast, reveals that certain actors love working with Russell, who lets them go nuts the way no other director does. The “Hustle” ensemble consists mostly of repeat players, combining as it does the casts of “Playbook” and “The Fighter”: Bale, Cooper, Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Amy Adams (whose fiery character is the only one I found remotely identifiable, and yet whose performance — which feels like it should be at the center of the action — seems to have been significantly reduced in the cutting room). From the look of things, these four have been invited to an unruly improv party, but instead of adding to a coherent plot, their performances threaten to run away with the movie.

I saw “American Hustle” on the morning of Dec. 3, as the New York Film Critics Circle were voting on their year-end prizes. As I entered the theater, the film had already won the group’s screenplay prize. (What screenplay? The cast seems to be operating off-book for most of the film.) By the time I emerged a taxing 138 minutes later, “Hustle” had also claimed their best picture award, plus a supporting actress win for Lawrence, who has one great scene (over lunch with Jack Huston), one truly bad scene (singing “Live and Let Die” in her living room) and otherwise seems to be making things up as she goes along.

How has “Hustle” conned so many intelligent people into declaring it a masterpiece? This is a messy C-minus movie at best, one that makes Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” look downright disciplined by comparison. And yet, building as it does on Russell’s recent hot streak and a dynamic combination of actors in their prime, the film seemed uniquely situated for a positive critical reception. In the official Variety review, my colleague Justin Chang affectionately referred to the film’s narrative fumblings as “a shaggy, meandering journey,” forgiving its many loose ends and aborted tangents, while others liken it to jazz, that musical style where making it up as you go along is considered a virtue.

Critics have also lavished praise on the film’s costume and wig departments, which trowel the ’70s kitsch on thick as the soundtrack does its period tunes. But just how great are all those plunging necklines and feathered hairstyles if they risk overtaking everything else onscreen, forcing the actors to compete with their own wardrobes? The best example is Bale’s unruly comb-over, which becomes the subject of the first scene and serves as a fitting metaphor for all the false appearances that follow, yet threatens to upstage his actorly grandstanding at every turn.

Meanwhile, is no one else bothered by the way Russell’s film treats its women, seen either as sex objects (in cleavage-baring outfits) or harpies (when they dare question their men)? Once again, the director invites his characters to behave unpredictably, but when it’s a woman who does so, she’s portrayed as a life-wrecking monster. Let’s not forget that one of the film’s more significant subplots asks audiences to root for a criminal (Bale) as he tries to wrest custody of his adopted son away from its unhinged yet law-abiding mother (Lawrence). Granted, one doesn’t look to a film like “American Hustle” for moral guidance. If anything, the film suggests that in the real world, good guys and bad guys alike are corrupt, and the only thing worth fighting for is love. But is a modicum of discipline — the sense that the filmmaker knows what he’s doing, as opposed to cobbling a movie together from what feels like outtakes — too much to ask?

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  1. jnf663 says:

    I find this to be a very misguided review. There’s a difference between having an opinion and being wrong: when you say that American Hustle has no structure, you’re wrong. It’s as tightly plotted as The Sting, even when it has the appearance of being free-flowing. The best of all art, like jazz, appears effortless, and if you think American Hustle looks too easy to do, then you try it.

    And, if you want to talk about a movie with no respect for its female characters, see The Wolf of Wall Street, and then we’ll talk. K?

    • RAL says:

      Completely agree with you jnf663. Debruge and the supporters of his “review/analysis” know absolutely about movies. And as you said, that’s a fact, not an opinion!

  2. Varol says:

    I completely agree with the reviewer.
    I felt cheated at the end ,when u see a cast of that caliber you do expect a great film!!!

  3. totempoem says:

    Wow. In one single, ludicrously off-target review, I realized this is one critic not worth paying attention to. Particularly bonkers in its appraisal of the screenplay, which is no small feat of complex interweaving, with a satisfying resolution. The Fighter was simply not a great film — all smoke and mirrors behind a strong central performance — and Silver Linings Playbook had all sorts of problems; but American Hustle is strong and satisfying.

    • RAL says:

      Completely agree with you totempoem. So off-target, it make you wonder why Variety is paying him to write for them. As I commented, his rant displays a complete lack of knowledge about film!

  4. maro1234 says:

    LOL!….Wow, what an obvious, pissy little rant. So, your favorite film didn’t win?…and now you’re going to throw a fit. Petulant little child. I loved the film and will be seeing it again this weekend.

    Look, the film is terrific and it’s doing well with critics, audiences alike….they can’t all be wrong. Majority rules my friend.

  5. Tmediaman says:

    Too complicated for you, Peter? There are lots of good animated titles this year you might enjoy – and perhaps understand.

  6. JuanP says:

    Variety should fire this hack. Nobody likes a jealous rant – especially when it’s an angry one. This guy OBVIOUSLY craves attention, and couldn’t get eyeballs on his article without screaming “fire!”…. There are film reviewers, and there are haters. In a sea of crap-tentpoles – we need MORE movies like Hustle. It’s one thing to be a critic, but this guy is just a jerk.

  7. It doesn’t matter what Peter Debruge says, it really matters what that other Peter says. What does Peter Bart say about this film? Now that will be interesting. Someone with some actual story and production experience.

    My bet is Directors will also Fete David O. Russell this year. He was robbed of an Oscar for Silver Linings. I will certainly be voting for him. its by far the best film this year. 12 years was such a was Capt Phililips and Philomena. What’s left?

  8. winston says:

    Btw if you want to see a very similar reaction to this reviewer’s whining for things not going his way at the NYFCC, look up Kyle Smith’s review. Identical effort to take shots at the film and Lawrence who won there. My goodness, It’s just a local film festival award. No need to cry about it like a baby.

  9. winston says:

    So if people disagree with this reviewer it’s a con or conspiracy? No ego there. I saw it and I loved it. Sorry. And Lawrence had quite a few great scenes. (She will be robbed of an Oscar this year because she just won last year). Yes, part of Russell’s method is to let the actor’s riff on the material. That’s what makes it special. Anyway why is it that those who got outvoted at the NYFCC are so childishly bitter? I liked Hustle a lot better than 12YAS.

  10. Mark says:

    Man, Petey…you sure are all pissy for some reason. Russell is one of the best filmmakers working today, and he always gets the best from his cast. American Hustle was no exception. Saw it this weekend with my family, and the crowd seemed to enjoy the film very much.
    Leave the movie reviews to Justin Chang.

  11. Darryl Macdonald says:

    Um… everyone is entitled to their opinion, Peter, but on this one, I think you’ve gone a little over the edge. One didn’t need to sharpen one’s knife for 5 minutes (let alone for ‘months’ in advance) after seeing Scorsese’s overproduced, overindulgent, one-note riff on greed to take on that movie. It went off the rails half way through its second act and kept on going, full speed ahead for another hour and a half – long after making any point it had to make. American Hustle, by comparison, was thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end, and the performances were equally enjoyable. Shaggy dog script? Give me that any day, so long as I’m engrossed in the characters and kept guessing as to their motivations and where the story is taking me. I’m guessing you were out of sorts when you saw Hustle, or had your own knife sharpened in advance, as your knock on Russell’s previous films seems to indicate. Either way, while I generally agree with your opinions about films and your usually thoughtful criticisms of same, on this one you are sorely off base. Just saying…

  12. DougW says:

    I know one movie that just cut back on its ad buy for Variety Oscar ads.

  13. Bill Weeden says:

    Thank you so much! I was beginning to think no one except the overly political Kyle Smith of the New York Post was going to blow the whistle on this outrageously oversold piece of overcooked nonsense.

    • winston says:

      Except like this reviewer Smith has no credibility. They both saw their favorites lose at the NYFCC and are now upset and throwing hissy fits.

  14. Life is messy – real people don’t behave in one way that is dictated by a major studio Hollywood paradigm. As a screenwriter, I found the film refreshing. Part of the job – and what’s on the page – is the structure that allows actors to be character in a situation where they exhibit behavior – without dialogue. You’re incorrect to say the film was improvised. It was STRUCTURED and played out according to a plan. That’s part of great writing for the screen. And as an audience member I found it all immensely entertaining, intelligent and a quite accurate evocation of what was going on in that time period. Sold a bill of goods? I don’t think so.

  15. Erica Abeel says:

    This sounds exactly right, Peter. And a cautionary tale about groupthink.

    • Ken says:

      Erica – I think you hit the nail on the head re “groupthink”. “Silver Linings” and “The Fighter” suffered from the same malady. So does the current wildly overpraised “!2 Years A Slave”. Peter Debruge is to be commended for his honesty and, yes, bravery – it makes criticism that much more vital imo. One wonders: is Debruge possessed by the spirit of Pauline Kael? If so, lucky him!

  16. Not quite a Feminist but.... says:

    Have to say, I also disagree with your assessment – and I’m a pretty confident, liberated/modern woman (I won’t go whole hog feminist). Frankly the men were much more at the mercy of the women who – by hook or crook – were steering the action. Was it overly long? Yes, I think there were one or two scenes which would have benefitted from tighter editing or could have been omitted altogether. Were the characters a tad over the top – hell, yes, at least as high as some of the hairdo’s. But it was a comedy (!) not an attempt at a real-life dramatic retelling or interpretation of the actual ABSAM events — ergo the (funny) disclaimer at the outset of the film: Some of this actually happened. I think you missed that part.

  17. RAL says:

    Your review/analysis of American Hustle shows a complete lack of knowledge about film and I am truly stunned! American Hustle is an extraordinary movie, with shadings of the classic comedies of Lubitch, Sturges and Wilder, coupled with ’70s classics like Shampoo. It is anything but a mess, anything but boring. And if you’re not purposely trying to be a contrarian, then you know absolutely nothing about movies.

    • Gabriel Oak says:

      I can’t believe O’Russell is being compared to Lubitch, Sturges and Wilder. He is nowhere near their level of filmmaking. He seems to have hypnotized award givers that he is making great movies. Good ones maybe but not exceptional ones.

    • Michael Anthony says:

      If you have adored every “great” film that had won acclaim, awards and such, then you have a point. Otherwise, you have no point, other than your own. And you are more “right”??? Its a critic who has major problems with a movie that the crowd seems to think is “great”.

  18. Davyjc says:

    I saw the film this weekend and was completely unimpressed. It was very difficult to figure what story was being told, the performances were at fever pitch throughout and it was so long, I was expecting some incredible plot revelation in the end. There was none. How can a 138 minute film get this much hoopla with barely a plot? Sometimes critics can be blind when loud actors start to chew up the scenery.

  19. RDO says:

    Whoa, what’s this guy’s beef? This tirade is laughable. Why is he getting a forum to trash this movie?

  20. coco says:

    this movie is rubbish as hell thank you for telling truth

  21. GT says:

    Today I’m thankful this writer doesn’t have an Academy vote

  22. Pj says:

    You mad, bro?

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