American Hustle: We’ve been pinched

American Hustle Bale Cooper

Director David O’Russell’s latest motion picture, “American Hustle,” courts Oscar attention by striking all the obligatory keys but the movie sings an anodyne tune.

There’s nothing in “American Hustle” to provoke a new consciousness in its viewers or in cinema at large.

One friend told me he walked out of “American Hustle” because it was so helplessly “boring.”  Granted, “boring” is often a reflex — lazy — response to movies.

But this friend, who recently joined me for a mutually pleasant (“thrilling,” he said) viewing of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” wasn’t reacting to “American Hustle’s” pace, which is admittedly slower than the Hollywood norm.  It was, he said, a reaction to the film’s lack of story and character.  I stayed until the end of the picture, which is to say I wanted to finish eating my popcorn in one place.

The story in “American Hustle” starts slow with a non-linear break meant to hook us before departing into a lengthy flashback with more flashbacks about who these characters are and how they came to be involved in the FBI’s Abscam operation in 1978.

The Abscam operation resulted in a handful of notable arrests though, according to the movie, it was not much compared to what it could have been if Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) had kept enlarging the operation’s scope.  But it also sweeps its loose threads out of view (What ever happened to the loan scam and Irving’s penchant for causing trouble to stay on top? Why does De Niro’s mafia thank Irving?).

The wobbly storyline is there for staging character moments where Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale can affect the kind of performances honored by Oscar voters.

Cooper’s DiMaso wants glory; Bale’s Irving wants Sydney; Adams’ Sydney wants male-centered stability; and Lawrence’s Rosalyn wants male-centered stability (uh, where are the female critics claiming misogyny here?).  The story ends peaceably for everyone involved (even for DiMaso who gets poetic justice).  Renner’s Carmine Polito is the only one who suffers at the end (the mafia are pleased and DiMaso’s silly FBI bosses enjoy the media spotlight) but Polito’s arrest is dismissed – “American Hustle” is long, complicated rubbish concerned with only reconciling boy & girl.  You show up for anything else and find you’ve been scammed.

On O’Russell & American cinema

O’Russell’s first three pictures (“Flirting with Disaster, “ “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees”) generated a lot of buzz in the movie industry, especially since they came from someone working outside the Hollywood studio system.  His last three, including “Hustle” as well as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” have nabbed a generous helping of award attention.

But O’Russell’s de rigeur aesthetic has hardly ever been a Hollywood outlier.  I admire the independent filmmaker who was able to adapt to the studio system’s model of filmmaking and thrive there.

I have no quibble with the man for his success but with his movies’ diaphanous finish and the clay-packed dullness that fills them.

O’Russell’s movies have done very little to challenge and buck the status quo of Hollywood conventions (the one exception maybe being “I Heart Huckabees” though setting the bar for bizarre theatrics in “indie movies” is nothing to write home about).

I know this sounds like the perennial griping of a pathetic “cinephile” (a word as terrible and pretentious as its subject), but I want the court to record my objection.

O’Russell first garnered attention as one of a few contemporary filmmakers (collectively named “Rebels on the Backlot” by Sharon Waxman in her book by the same name) who worked outside of the major motion picture industry.   Waxman was right to identify the “six maverick directors” and the change their work heralded in American cinema.

Out of those six, O’Russell is the black sheep, not for working in Hollywood, but for doing nothing exceptional to continue changing American cinema.

I can’t bring myself to like any of Tarantino’s movies (except maybe “Inglourious Basterds”) but Tarantino still could rout O’Russell with invention and heart — what may be a generous reading and should probably be termed “attitude.”

Fincher, Jonze and Soderbergh have clung to their trademark themes but have found new ways of expressing them on-screen.  O’Russell has his own bag of canonical themes (the debilitating neuroses, armpit-licking quirks and psychological insecurities all fencing in their victims from re-entering an oppressive society) but they’re all tricks — O’Russell has exhibited little imagination in tackling any of his pet issues.

You watch an O’Russell movie and are reassured (there is no discovery in an O’Russell movie) these victims overcome the socially imposed obstacles. Fade out and repeat.

Paul Thomas Anderson, I would say, has risen out from Waxman-tagged six as a world-class important director, exploring the bounds of cinema and impacting a theater larger than America (he had gelled as the creme de la creme before Waxman wrote her book).

Compared to the ambitions of Anderson’s motion pictures, O’Russell is no better than the adult-child I recently saw who sings the same song in front of family and friends every Christmas, who bows to their toes waving in praise for nothing spectacular.

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