American Hustle is a mess of a film. It purports to tell a tale about a scam in which an FBI agent hopes to trap politicians engaged in corruption in 1978. I think the script and the mise en scène are both problematic and the shifting tone of the scenes means that it often isn’t clear what kind of film we are watching. If this is one of the American films of the year – or at least one that the Academy is considering for major honours – then the US industry is itself in a mess.
I should confess that in a sense I went to see the film more or less out of desperation. I calculate that there hasn’t been a single foreign language film on general release for the last three months around here and I wanted to go to the pictures! But I have enjoyed the David O. Russell films that I’ve watched before and I expected to enjoy this one. To pick out the good things, the music soundtrack is very enjoyable and there is a great cast – but unfortunately they are dressed like cartoon characters and required to behave similarly. I’m happy to go with obnoxious characters as required by the plot, but Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent in this film becomes so annoying that I just hoped someone would despatch him to get him off the screen. But the main problem is that the mixing of genres/approaches just isn’t thought through. (There has been some discussion about how much Russell required his actors to improvise on set.) Of course I realise that the film is essentially about a ‘scam’, or a ‘sting’ and that it is probably meant to be ‘playful’ in its tonal shifts. Perhaps the extended dialogue scenes that don’t seem to go anywhere are part of this playfulness? The film is based on a real FBI operation in 1978 and the audience is warned at the beginning by the statement “Some of this actually happened”. We don’t know which bits.
I suppose the real question here is about what the attempt to marry a comedy and a reconstruction of a controversial entrapment project means in terms of politics, aesthetics and simple entertainment. Like most audiences I enjoy a fictional heist or sting movie whether it is played straight or as a comedy but this seems the worst of all worlds – it’s not that funny, or intriguing in its plot shifts and its politics seem very confused. My main concern throughout the film was that Amy Adams was going to catch pneumonia with her chest open to the elements wherever she went. She’s far too good an actor to be treated in this way. Now I’m going to try to find Louis Malle’s Atlantic City to remind me of what New Jersey might have been like in the 1970s.