When I was a little kid, I didn’t understand how keys worked. All I knew was that mommy or daddy stuck a key into the doorknob, jiggled it a little, and the door magically became openable. I didn’t understand that the turning of the key was what did it, and my brain didn’t have enough information to come up with a valid answer. So I decided that maybe if I put the key in the doorknob and shook it so that it made the same sounds that it did when mommy or daddy did it, the door would probably unlock. I tested this hypothesis, and of course it failed. I bring this up because it’s such a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with American Hustle. David O. Russell doesn’t know how to make a thoughtful, engaging film. He just knows what one sounds like. American Hustle is him shaking the hell out of that key so that it makes just the right noise, and he gets the exact same result that I did.
In the past, I’ve been critical of writer/director David O. Russell. His films aren’t bad, necessarily, but every time one of them received universal acclaim from critics and boatloads of Oscar nominations I was simply confused. The Fighter is an imperfect film, but it’s not terrible, so I wasn’t surprised to see the Academy recognize it. But when Silver Linings Playbook garnered even more praise last year, I was bewildered. Again, that movie isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it’s very good, though, and I certainly don’t see it as Oscar-worthy. And then American Hustle came out, and it was the same thing all over again. I don’t hate Russell or his films, but every time I saw someone rave about American Hustle I liked it a little less. I know that’s not a fair treatment for any film, but hear me out. At first, I appreciated it for what it was. That being a funny film with characters I generally enjoyed spending time with. I didn’t ask for any more than that. As it became a major part of the “awards conversation,” though, I was forced to think more deeply about it. And the deeper I dug, the less I found. If you go for a dive into American Hustle, you’re gonna hit your head on concrete faster than you might expect.
In last week’s review of Dallas Buyers Club, I criticized that film for being a “nothing movie.” That is, it’s a film which tells a story but isn’t interested in being about anything. American Hustle is, unfortunately, more of the same. Unlike Dallas Buyers Club, American Hustle is a very entertaining film. It’s energetic and funny, and the cast is just aces. However, it’s a fleeting pleasure. The film doesn’t use its story to do anything more interesting than tell it. In the moment, it’s an engaging blast. The second you leave the theater, it’s wiped from your memory.
Does that mean it’s not entertaining, though? Of course not. While you’re in the theater experiencing it, American Hustle is a delight. Everything about the film is kinetic. It’s constantly moving some way or another, even when the story starts to drag. I was having a great time watching it, and the film maintained that feeling for its full runtime. But as soon as I left the theater, I forgot everything about it. That’s the thing about American Hustle. Nothing sticks with you after it’s over, because the film doesn’t actually do anything interesting or thought-provoking. It’s like you’re a baby and David O. Russell spent two hours jingling something shiny in front of your face. Sure it’s fun to look at, and you might even get caught up in it. But Russell counts on you to have a short attention span, so you won’t get bored and you won’t afterwards realize that you just watched something so pointless.
Would that have been so bad? No, not necessarily. The problem is that American Hustle really wants you to think that those shiny things contain some important truth about humanity, and that the way he jingles them only strengthens those themes. None of that’s true, but it sure seems like it at first. See, Russell doesn’t just shoot the movie in a simple way and get it over with. He actually does work with some idiosyncratic style. Almost all of it is ripped off from Martin Scorsese, but that’s a conversation for another day. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this film that appears to be worthwhile and interesting, but none of it contributes to a larger theme. There’s this repeated phrase that the characters use: “From the feet up.” It’s kind of a con-men motto, we’re led to understand. Russell never actually explains what it means, but I assume it has something to do with fully committing to a ruse. Late in the film, Christian Bale’s character decides that he can no longer go along with the con they’ve been playing. That’s the only connection I can think of to this phrase, but the way that the characters use it over and over makes you think that it has some actual relevance. Dallas Buyers Club didn’t do anything interesting cinematically. American Hustle seems to think that it’s enough just to have something that kind of looks like a symbol. But it’s not enough to just say, “This means something.” It has to actually mean something. It’s Russell with the key again. He doesn’t seem to get that making a good movie entails actual construction and layering of detail.
And on top of it all, it’s a complete failure as a con-man movie. The most successful movies in this genre have moments when the characters surprise the audience. There’s something they know that we don’t, and their plan isn’t revealed until after it happens. To write this, you have to be really clever, and Russell obviously isn’t. That doesn’t stop him from trying, though. Throughout the film, the characters explain in voiceover exactly what they’re doing and why. It’s terribly lazy, and at a certain point it becomes condescending. The schemes that the main characters pull are mildly interesting, but the life is sapped from them with every line of exposition. But at the end, Russell signals to the audience that he’s about to do something different. He’s going to pull that classic con-man movie trick. Not only does it defeat the entire purpose of the conceit to have the characters explain to each other that they’re about to do something, but the thing they actually do is agonizingly simple. Without spoiling anything, it turns out that a character we’ve never seen before is actually a different character we’ve never seen before. Mind-blowing, right? The movie’s been building up Bale and Adams as these master con artists, but the one time it tries to play one of their cons as a big twist it’s totally meaningless.
So it doesn’t matter that Jennifer Lawrence is hilarious and fun in her role, and that Christian Bale’s transformation from slick con-man to put-upon husband in their scenes together is further proof of his skill as an actor. It doesn’t matter that Louis C.K.’s deadpan sense of humor is used to such great effect, or that Bradley Cooper’s brief impression of him is so spot-on. It doesn’t matter how great this ensemble is, and how each performance is only made better during scenes where some of the five main characters are talking. All of these should be points in the film’s favor, but instead they feel like manipulation. The problem is that they aren’t masking anything bad, they’re masking a black hole of nothingness. In most disappointing-to-terrible films, stuff like that is the cardboard on the sidewalk that covers up vomit so you don’t have to step in it. In American Hustle, there’s nothing to cover up. It’s almost a betrayal. The film promises that it’ll get your brain going, but it never does. Maybe that’s because Russell’s smart enough to make a hollow movie that looks deep. Or maybe he’s just shaking the keychain, trying to replicate that noise as best he can. Hope he gets the door open next time.
Well, that was two weeks straight of negativity. Had to get it out of the way. I really like all the remaining nominees, and I straight-up love a handful of them. Next week, we’ll get to the one that I love most of all.
Next Week: 2/1