It’s more than a cliche, at this point, to accuse filmmakers of ripping off Martin Scorsese. Just about every major director has done it, on some level, once or twice. “Everybody steals from everybody, that’s the movies” a character expounding on the subject said in “Swingers,” and that was all the way back in 1996.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a dealbreaker- After all, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” the absolute gold standard of Stealing From Scorsese, is still a great movie in its own right.
David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” however, takes brazen Marty-theft to a new level entirely. Just about everything in the film- the structure, themes, style, wardrobe and music- are lifted directly from “GoodFellas” and “Casino.” It’s Scorsese Karaoke.
But instead of building on that established foundation to do great, original things, “American Hustle” betrays a lack of cinematic judgment that’s frankly astonishing, from a group of very accomplished filmmakers and performers: Just about every choice it makes is wrong.
Based on a Black List-listed screenplay by Eric Warren Singer, the film was “extensively re-written” by Russell, who takes on a co-writing credit. Forgoing the “based on a true story” title card for “some of this actually happened” is the first of “American Hustle”‘s many tragic mistakes.
The film is based, very loosely, on Abscam, a minor political scandal in the late ’70s that tied several members of Congress to bribes from a Middle Eastern sheik who it turns out was a complete fiction created by the FBI. Abscam probably is best known for contributing the phrase “money talks, bullshit walks” to the lexicon, although ‘Hustle,’ for some reason, omits this delicious detail.
The true story is pretty fascinating in its own right, but for some reason the film embellishes and fictionalizes it heavily, focusing on pretend versions of four characters to the side of the action: Small-time conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), his mistress and partner in crime (Amy Adams) and the FBI agent handling their case (Bradley Cooper.)
The list of horrible choices made here is long and extensive. The film – originally titled “American Bullshit”- has a core point: That we all lie. We’re all full of shit. We lie to others, we lie to ourselves. That’s America, man. And “American Hustle” isn’t subtle about making this point. It makes it, it makes it again, and in case you didn’t get it the first couple of times, a character says it out loud. Then another one does.
The structure, pacing and tone are all over the place, there’s no narrative momentum and the dialogue is so stilted that it feels like it’s either improvised, or a first draft that was rushed into production. Certain scenes either feel unfinished or flat-out make no sense, especially a ladies room confrontation between Adams and Lawrence, while numerous lines are howlers. There was no one, in 1978, who believed that “after Vietnam and Watergate, we’re just starting to trust politicians again,” much less said such a thing out loud.
Then there’s the intrusive soundtrack, which sounds no different from a typical two-hour stretch of classic rock radio, although a bit heavier on the Steely Dan.
“American Hustle” was greenlit and produced uncommonly quickly, following the twin Oscar runs of “Silver Linings Playbook”- whose director and three primary stars return here- and “Argo,” another fact-based film set in the late ’70s with similar costumes and facial hair. Perhaps it just wasn’t ready.
When a movie has talented, accomplished actors in the four main roles, it’s hard to screw it up. But I wouldn’t say that any of the four are right for their roles. And that starts with Bale: I don’t know that Christian Bale has ever been bad in a film before- but he’s woefully miscast as a middle-aged, paunchy Jewish sad sack. I believed him as a serial killer, as a crackhead boxer and as Batman, but I never bought that he was this guy for a second.
Cooper, wearing an unfortunate perm, isn’t much better. There’s a probably apocryphal story that Al Pacino, on the set of Michael Mann’s “Heat,” was told to play the part as if he were a cocaine addict, but all references to that addiction were dropped from the finished film. I got that same impression from Cooper in “American Hustle”- perhaps the filmmakers decided that while they may have been stealing everything else from “Goodfellas,” the introduction of cocaine as a catalyst for third act chaos was a bridge too far.
But then when you didn’t think the “Goodfellas”/”Casino parallels were obvious enough- there’s Robert De Niro, in a brief cameo as a Mafia boss. In reality, the mob had only tangential connection to Abscam; one gets the impression that the only reason those scenes were included was to shoehorn De Niro into the film.
As for Adams, this is clearly her big push for an Oscar. She’s does the best she can, but her character is mostly shunted to the sidelines at about the halfway point. Of course, one could easily get the impression from this film that the director is in love with the actress- I stopped counting the leering closeups on Adams’ breasts, thighs and feet after about the 25th.
Jennifer Lawrence is entertaining if scenery-chewing as a boozy, bull-in-a-china-chop housewife, but that doesn’t change that every single thing about the character indicates that she should be in her mid-to-late 30s, while Lawrence is 23.
Jeremy Renner plays Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (a fictionalized version of the real-life Angelo Errichetti), a corrupt politician who for some reason is portrayed as by far the most moral and sympathetic character in the film. And why were the names of the politicians changed? It’s not as though their convictions aren’t a matter of public record.
Some of the smaller roles are well-cast; I particularly enjoyed Louis C.K. as Cooper’s boss, and longtime Law & Order lawyer Elisabeth Rohm as Renner’s wife. Michael Pena supplies many of the film’s few laughs as the Mexican-American FBI agent impersonating the sheik. And it’s always great to see Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston, as a mob-connected guy who romances Lawrence.
On the other hand Alessandro Nivola, as an FBI bigwig, plays the part as if he’s doing a bad Christopher Walken impression. And Bradley Cooper’s mother is played by someone who may very well have been a man in a dress.
I admit I was very excited about “American Hustle” when it was first announced. I’ve been hot and cold on Russell before, but he’s capable of standout work, and he assembled a great cast in telling a compelling real-life story. How it all went this wrong is a question we’ll be asking ourselves for years.
Wait a week for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” That’s the real Scorsese; ‘Hustle’ is a mere pale imitation.