Here is a movie about conmen without a single bad guy. A movie about corruption without a trace of cynicism. It has a convoluted plot yet it’s written and directed by David O. Russell, who doesn’t care about plot. It’s the same story Russell told twice before, with the same general actors playing the same general characters in the same general way but cast against type this time. Six actors return from Silver Linings Playbook, four from The Fighter. Ever in screwball land, Bradley Cooper continues to speak with the speed and musicality of a fast-talking dame, and lines from different pictures echo one another:
Pat Solitano (Cooper): “I’m on the scoreboard! I’m playing down field!”
Richie DiMaso (Cooper): “I’m runnin’ the show! I’m the quarterback!”
Stress & emphasis recur across actors and films: Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola) says no to an entire floor at the Plaza but yes to the plan in general with the same rhythm and cadence as Randy (Paul Herman) rejects the handicap but takes the parlay in Playbook. The camera follows Cooper and Amy Adams to the dancefloor from behind like it did Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the prior film. Dramatic Steadicam swoop-ins for emphasis are common now. Shots are replicated across films—cameras pan from face to hands then back to face, as if gestures could talk:
What is it if not another story of reinvention, another reification of Russell’s self-conscious self-transformation? Du mußt dein Leben ändern, Rilke wrote. You must change your life. An imperative so strong, even the characters scream Russell’s themes out loud:
“I wanna be fuckin’ real!”
A Capra-corn Cassavetes
“That’s emotion,” Tiffany Maxwell told Pat Solitano when he walked across the studio to her in Silver Linings Playbook. Russell’s unstated aim—to marry the raw feelings of Cassavetes to the romantic optimism of Frank Capra (a logical fusion, since Capra was the Hollywood director Cassavetes most admired)—is reified by his mode of production. Like in Cassavetes, sets are lit for 360 degrees so that actors can move freely with blocking adjusted as needed; the camera (in this case, a Steadicam) is handheld , like in Cassavetes; but unlike in the films of Cassavetes, who hated beautiful shots and once fired cinematographer Caleb Deschanel for being too hung up on them, American Hustle’s director of photography, Linus Sandgren, devised a way to glamourize the actors by lighting them on the fly. “To make sure that any actor we panned to had enough light,” Sandgren said, “my gaffer, Patrick Murray, hung a Chinese lantern from a sound boom, running by the Steadicam; we filled the lantern with dimmable LEDs, which gave us the ability to dial the color temperature from warm to cool.”1 New Hollywood, meet Old Hollywood.
Russell films scenes all the way through without stopping, nine or ten times in a row with no breaks in between, no adjusting lights, no fussing over perfect camera angles or focus, no waiting in trailers between takes, nothing, just a constant escalation, with the director on top of the actors, yelling instructions or modifying lines in the midst of it all. The result is loud, vulgar, operatic and cartoonish, with no concern for modulation or moderation.
“David finds moments where this ‘pushed reality’ is the truth.”
– Amy Adams2
Realism ruined movies; where before, truth was something you felt while watching a cowboy cross his arms, the history of cinema passing from Harry Carey to John Wayne as we watched Duke through a doorway, suddenly the search for truth became a prosaic concern for relative minutiae (resulting eventually in a process-oriented cinema of actual minutiae and grim pseudo-documentary shaky-cam depictions of the Truth, capital T).
Realism obligated fidelity to objects, not feelings. Once when they were full, movie theaters were to dream in; now empty, a nit-picking pedantry took over. But the sleep of reason produces monsters: directors, even great ones like Robert Altman, held their characters in contempt, but looking down on the world didn’t make sense when looking up at a screen, and theaters emptied even further.
Russell was as guilty of acting superior as Alexander Payne, Joel & Ethan Coen or any of their contemporaries were, but today, having turned his back on all that, he’s reviled in some circles for having gone soft. In American Hustle, there are good sides to every character. Russell’s vision is earnest and annoying and he pursues it relentlessly. “I know what I love right now,” he says. “I love these kinds of people and these kinds of worlds.”3
To love life, in Russell’s self-described trilogy of emotion, reinvention, and enchantment, was to flout decorum, furiously tearing at life like it were meat on a stick. Characters fell in love at the drop of a hat, not because it made sense but because it seemed crazy (“Falling in love is kind of a form of socially acceptable insanity,” Amy Adams would say in Her, the new movie by Russell’s friend, Spike Jonze).
What if the entire plot were a MacGuffin? What if film were reduced to character (Hawks), performance (Cassavetes), romance and enchantment (vulgar legacy of the Hollywood studio system), would the remainder be American Hustle?
Abolish plot summaries, I say (and don’t read the comments). I watch a movie a day, give or take, and don’t remember the plots to any of them. I remember story: lonely, lovable loser takes advantage of people until he doesn’t want to anymore. Camera movement: the lens gliding from mirror to character or vice-versa, because how a man sees the world changes based on how he sees himself. I remember images: Jennifer Lawrence hate-dusting to “Live and Let Die”. A moral code: you must change your life.
Was it a mess? Was it sloppy? Does a bear shit in the woods? The film was fast and loose because what’s frozen is dead. The mode of production matched the themes, which matched the execution. In Russell’s world, a character’s interior life is forever on the verge of being expressed; emotions are operatic; people are dreamers; romance is everything (“you’re nothing to me until you’re everything”). If you don’t love life and all the horrible rotten shit that comes with it (“It’s flowers but with garbage”), what are you even doing?
“Floating in the dead space with the furnitures and the curtains,” that’s what.
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