American Hustle

American Hustle ★★½

"David [O. Russell] has a very unusual style of directing," Robert De Niro told A.O. Scott in 2012. "You’ve got the camera moving around, he’ll push the camera over to this character, to that character, he’ll throw lines at you and you repeat them." That explains a lot about the constant manic energy in Russell's work from I Heart Huckabees' onwards (where I came in; shamefully, have yet to come up with the prior reputation-making films) and why the camera — when not occupied with a close-up (or even during one) — is constantly aimlessly swooping around (so many unmotivated Steadicams being walked from spot to spot). This working method made sense for Huckabees, which balanced its overall panic levels by diluting the ensemble: Lily Tomlin and Isabelle Huppert were on a markedly different page than the philosophically frenzied around them, making room for tonal contrasts and necessary down-time. Ditto The Fighter, pitting a would-be stoic against his insane family, less so in Silver Linings Playbook (everyone is nuts, the world is crazy, etc.).

If (as oft-suggested) Russell's a frustrated screwball comedy director, his characters no longer need reasons to justify executing such arcanely (says who, but I'll let that pass) stylized performances in the recognizable contemporary world. Everyone in American Hustle seems to be talking at the same speed and with the same level of misdirected energy: it's hard to avoid the sensation that you're watching an entire cast trying to exactly mimic a performance overbearingly modeled by their director.

Bradley Cooper is Russell's ideal: in his first big speech trying to get Amy Adams to turn on Christian Bale, a seemingly unstoppable torrent of words veers from deflationary, irrelevant side-chat to The Heart Of The Matter, establishing both his character's logorrhea and how that's actually a skill, not a tic. (No offense to Cooper, who's a perfectly capable performer, but he's no substitute for Mark Wahlberg as a regular collaborator, who seemed big enough to be credibly dangerous as he spirals out of control; Cooper just seems reflexively neurotic.) Christian Bale may be slow and paunchy, Adams worried and more prone to reticence, but ultimately they're all on the same ill-fitting page, overacting ceaselessly In endless close-ups (even the act of whispering is WHISPERING).

Regardless of the topic — Bale/Adams' relationship, the finer points of FBI procedure, that stupidly over-stated/-broad theme of American hustle/greed — it's all treated in the same manner. Russell funnels a mass of heterogeneous, largely unrelated topics through his one-style-fits-all method (now a tic), reducing it all to the same overworked texture. Give Russell credit for making a bad movie that's instantly recognizable as his own work; De Niro cameo or no, this style has very little to do with Scorsese, aspirationally or practically. Pointless to make a period piece with this style: if there's like five establishing shots, all of that production design is going nowhere. It's telling that the most '70s-flavorful visual is Bale and Adams standing in the center of his dry-cleaning emporium, as tackily "groovy" clothing swirls around them. (Also, there's a shot where someone, I think Harris, is gesticulating frantically with their hands and the camera briefly nods down from face to his extremities and back again; Russell can apparently only register movement or dialogue, not both simultaneously.)

Two hours of would-be-showy self-parody, with little curlicues (a shared voice-over unexpectedly accommodates multiple voices that unceremoniously chime in and drop out) that add nothing to a tremendously ill-judged film. Even here, there are little chuckle-worthy pockets of life (Bale disgustedly, distractedly shoving aside stray lettuce strands in the fridge while complaining about Jennifer Lawrence's lack of cleaning skills is a nice detail). But it's such a tedious mess and so wrongly pleased with itself; the "unexpected" final Bale close-up/cut to the card "Directed by David O. Russell" can only prompt the disgusted response "It certainly was."

Finally, Nick Pinkerton can take it from here regarding that title: "There’s something immediately off-putting in movies that prefix their title with 'American' [...] Claiming to speak for the national character right in the title invites hubris, especially when that analysis of the national character that comes with that 'American' prefix always tends to say the same thing."