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How ‘American Hustle’ Conned the Critics

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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