In some ways, American Hustle reminded me of Joe Wright’s 2012 version of Anna Karenina. Wright burst onto the international scene with a thoughtful and wildly entertaining Pride and Prejudice in 2005, followed by 2007’s Atonement, which was occasionally too formalistic for its own good. Full disclosure: I show the incredible one-take beach sequence in my film class in our session on camera movement. It’s a stunning sequence, but the technical triumph of the shot is so wondrous it takes many viewers out the film altogether in their awareness and admiration for all that went into making that happen. It was brilliant, and perhaps too self-consciously so. The touching and occasionally powerful story of Atonement was often lost in his technical virtuosity.
Wright continued his growing emphasis on the more formal structural elements of film in Anna Karenina, which nearly sacrificed story and feeling altogether in its too-strong conceit of the stage instead of realistic and natural-looking sets. The artificiality of the theatrical setting overwhelmed the story. It was a failed experiment, and we can only hope that Wright the stylish storyteller will return to us.
American Hustle is not dissimilar, with acting replacing the theatrical setting. I cannot recall a film where the actors seem to pop off the screen as much as this film. The actors dominate, even overpower, every scene in the film, occasionally subsuming their characters at times. Director David O. Russell gives a great deal of freedom to his actors, he knows how to cast talented people, and he gets award-winning performances. No wonder actors love working with him.
Russell’s The Fighter (2010) won Best Supporting Oscars for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. Both were excellent performances, but they were part of a tapestry of storytelling that never lost its focus. It remained a story of two pugilist brothers within the context of a dysfunctional family. Russell’s next film was the critically acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which was slightly overpraised. Its acting was rightly hailed, with Oscar nominations for all four leads and a win for current It Girl Jennifer Lawrence. Russell pulled Robert DeNiro back from the brink of self-satire, gave Jacki Weaver the performance opportunity of her career, and pulled Bradley Cooper into the realm of “serious actor,” a surprise move to most familiar with his work up until then, But there was a slight lack of focus in the film, and it was perhaps most reflected in the acting, which was barely kept within the confines of character for everyone but Weaver (who stayed completely within the boundaries of her character). Since the story was about what two damaged people went through individually and as a couple, any quirks, overreaches and slight thespian misfires could all be classified as aspects of their troubled characters. It was funky and energetic, and its leads were appealing and sympathetic, and seemed as fresh as a bright blue sky after a rain.
American Hustle goes one step further. It starts Oscar winners Lawrence and Bale, and nominees Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner. No dearth of talent here. Nearly everyone plays against type: Bale is fat and unattractive, Adams plays things up smart and seductive, Renner is intense but rather nice, and Lawrence is the anti-Katniss—all outlandish spunk with equal parts vulnerability and cluelessness. (Cooper doesn’t have a type yet to play against.) Spoiler alert: There’s also an appearance of another Oscar-winning person that comes as a surprise to both the characters in the film and those of us in the audience. The film is a treasure trove of fully expressive acting. No one is over the top, but all the leads come close. It’s a treat watching them give their all and demonstrate their skill. But ultimately, that is what the film is about. As Wright’s Anna Karenina was ultimately about its setting and its theatrical conceit—and suffered for it—American Hustle is all about the talent of its actors, and is the lesser for it.
The story itself is as dazzling as the acting, and tries desperately to hold the individual scenes together. Ostensibly the film is Russell’s take on the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, and the look and sound of the times are a delight to the eye and ear and give the occasional shudder to those of us old enough to remember those clothes and that music. There are cons and more cons, working where we as viewers can see them, and operating behind the scenes waiting to surprise. The film moves quickly, urging us to keep up. But as my best friend put it, its sum is lesser than its parts. The story barely contains the acting (and occasionally doesn’t), and the plot seems to wrestle consistently for dominance with the demonstration of the skill of its cast.
Can there be too much good acting in a film? No, I don’t think so. But there can be a surfeit of uncontained acting skill. There can be too much of an individual stamp by an actor that sacrifices character to a demonstration of range and possibility. American Hustle is a joyride, and a very good film. But it’s not close to the best of the year, and gives one pause for the direction that this very gifted filmmaker might be taking.