American Hustle (2013)

american-hustle

Louis C Minus

In the now yearly coal black Christmas presents of David O. Russell’s cinematic exercises in overrated filmmaking, American Hustle seems to oddly theorize its own failure. One of the leads, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), surely one of the most ill-treated G-Men in the history of cinema, requests two million dollars of government money to use as bait in his Abscam sting operation. He makes the request of his boss, Stoddard Thorsen, oddly played by genius comedian, Louis C.K.

Thorsen refuses, but during his conversations with his underling, begins telling a story of having gone ice fishing with his brother in Minnesota. Thorsen is interrupted, causing DiMaso to repeatedly ask throughout the film what the moral of the story was going to be. At first, DiMaso thinks that the brother fell through the thin ice, making the moral to heed one’s supervisor (the boy’s father had warned them about the conditions). However, Thorsen claims that while his brother is dead, it happened many years later, and that his death is not relevant.

So, too does American Hustle end with out any explanation, either to DiMaso or to the audience, what the moral of its “fishing” story might be. The film is thematically incoherent. It seems to want to argue that the FBI scammers are no better than the con men—both inside of congress and out—that they attempt to indict. Indeed, the con man upon whom the FBI relies to design the scam involving a fake Arab sheik is the most interesting character in the film, Irving Rosenfeld (played as pathetic and unctuous and remarkably human by the surprisingly good Christian Bale). And yet, no Bertolt Brecht play is this: the film is so cynical that anything resembling the leftist argument for class equality in a Brecht play is glaringly absent. As its title indicates, American Hustle suggests that the nation itself is built upon lies, and that it is irrelevant whether one has good intentions, such as the entrapped mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), or bad intentions, as is the case with the careerist district attorney Anthony Amado (played by Alessandro Nivola).

Russell is a dull filmmaker, what Francois Truffault once referred to as a metteur-en-scene, a guy who knows where to put the camera to capture the film’s plot. The one thing that saves American Hustle from disaster is that Russell has a keen eye and ear for characterization. In fact, I think he’d make a serviceable theatrical director, allowing his quirky people to roam about the stage, and his talented actors to make these weird people come to life. Like all but one of his previous films, American Hustle lacks the ability to form a coherent thematic argument. Indeed, the only Russell film to do so is his sparkling debut, Spanking the Monkey (1994), in which similarly great performances (by Jeremy Davies as a disaffected male teenager and Alberta Watson as his smothering mother) explore the incestuous aspects of the contemporary middle-class dysfunctional family. Alas, there is no such brilliance on display in American Hustle. Russell’s subsequent success seems to have caused him to completely lose his way.

This is truly a shame. The Abscam scandal is long overdue for cinematic treatment. Alas, the cinema seems woefully cursed in its attempts. In the early 1980s, French auteur Louis Malle had a project ready to shoot, Moon Over Miami, set to star the then-hot Saturday Night Live comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. However, Belushi’s death from a drug overdose doomed the project. And now, the wretched American Hustle.

If you are interested in a great film that tackles the relationship between cinema and fakery, might I suggest instead Orson Welles’ last film, an essay entitled F for Fake (1974). Welles stars in the film, seeming to forward a documentary of the life of Elmyr de Hory, an art forger collided with a cinematic presentation of Clifford Irving, famous for having written a fake biography of Howard Hughes. Welles’ film forces the viewer to disengage from the reported true value of cinema’s photographic representation. To emphasize the fictional nature of his essay, Welles reconstructs the insufficient “News on the March” sequence about the fictional Charles Foster Kane from his masterpiece Citizen Kane in parody form to tell the viewers about the very real Howard Hughes, a filmmaker himself.

But it is the very nature of editing as an act of lying that Welles forwards as his film’s thematic message. Having already misspoke to us early in the film, stating that he would tell us the truth for an hour, Welles at the film’s end reminds us that the hour expired fifteen minutes ago, and in that amount of time, “I’ve been lying my head off.” Since Russell is not interested in cinema as a language of deceit, there is no such equivalent interrogation of the aesthetic techniques of American Hustle. The film thus implicitly argues that while everyone in the film is untrustworthy, such a critique does not seem to extend to those behind the cameras. Thus, the film’s use of terrific actors (including Amy Adams in a career high) does not extend to emphasizing that what they do is lie professionally and with exquisite skill.

While the casting of American Hustle is one of its strengths, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Louis C.K. would be cast as G-Man Thorsen after the brilliant comedian’s disastrous turn in Woody Allen’s recent, Blue Jasmine (2013). He is outshined by Andrew Dice Clay, for heaven’s sake. And then it dawned on me. The joke about the moral of the ice fishing story is not on Richie DiMaso; it’s on us.

– Walter Metz