American Hustle [2013]

The majority of the reviews I’ve read for American Hustle focus on it as an “actor’s movie”, and David O Russell is lauded as a director that can get great performances out of his actors. In particular, Jennifer Lawrence has been singled out for praise – she won a major award the other night. David Edelstein’s review over at Vulture seems almost calculated to be the quotable on the topic:

They trust him enough to put everything they have into every shot, and in scene after scene they hit the motherlode.

The entire review is a typical as a paean to the actors and their ability to breathe life into a story that he concludes “doesn’t hold up to sober scrutiny”.  Geeks of Doom is even more explicitly dismissive, claiming that  “[u]ltimately, the by-the-numbers cops and con-artists story isn’t the main attraction here.” They, and Edelstein fail to even mention the real plot of the film, while the Guardian review claims the film “is pure style from David O Russell.” I can’t help but feel that there’s a certain critical myopia involved here – as if the plot were genuinely dispensable, and any old scaffolding would do to support the film’s outrageous hair.

In this case, as most, the dismissal of plot is missing a crucial strategy of the film. These are completely valid viewer-response pieces that advocates for the things that created a positive response, but that’s a fairly shallow read of a film from professional critics. This kind of emotional review speaks to the effect a film has on its audience, but none of them explain in any substantial or systematic way how the effect was achieved. For example when Edelstein talks about how it’s easy to dislike Bradley Cooper’s character:

He’s easy to root against, especially when he picks on Louis CK as his scowling, uptight superior. We can’t help being loyal to Louie.

He doesn’t talk about how this dislike interacts with the structure of the film, or its role in the sequence of hustles that are the plot of the film. His hostility to Richie DeMaso is free-floating, as if it were an end in and of itself. Why on earth would that be the case? It takes a film-maker of singularly limited capacities to go to that trouble generating emotional effect simply for the sake of it. That emotional response, carefully created, is a key part of the film’s formulaic structure, which difficult to explain without spoilers.

The film’s structure is based entirely upon variations of the Long Con. Irving and Sydney are moderately successful con artists with a single confidence game: they can supply loans, for a fee. The customer pays the fee up-front, Irving prevaricates for a suitable length of time and then advises the customer that the loan has been declined. It’s all very sad – but the fee is non-refundable. In comparison to most fictional con artists, this is a pretty limited repertoire, but I think we’re expected to view this as a synecdoche for a wider range of enterprises and talents. They get caught, roughly the fate you’d expect for a criminal of habit, and put to work for the FBI. Their handler, Bradley Cooper as Agent DiMaso, offers them a deal – hook in four other confidence artists and they go free.

This is a classic genre ploy, and it’s important in story structural terms for a couple of reasons. The first is that the con artist is generally in control of the situation, and it’s a little dramatically unsatisfying to watch someone start off in control, maintain control, and then be successful. Our modern Western notion of drama requires challenge and the spectre of failure. Having the con artist unwillingly work for someone else is one of the easiest and surest ways to put them on the back foot and allow them an arc from strife to success, where we the audience mostly want our protagonists. Unlike most other challenges to the con artist, this one also gives them the chance for what we might think of as an extraordinary success. It’s difficult to con the unwary, but to con the very person who’s got you over a barrel and knows your tricks – magnifique! The audience expects from the second they suffer duress, that DiMaso will end the story worse off.

This, in turn, means that DiMaso needs to be an unlikeable character. In order for the audience to feel good about him ending up worse off, we need to dislike him, so the film begins to work to that end. The opening scenes are intended to cause investment in Irving and Sydney as a couple – so DiMaso is inserted as a wedge between them. We enjoy the consummate skill of the artist – so DiMaso interferes with the operation. We are worried about the consequences of failure for our characters – so DiMaso pushes the stakes of the operation higher at every turn. In between these interventions in the two core story formulae, DiMaso is shown as a general-purpose creep. We were supposed to dislike him, which Bradley Cooper always makes extremely easy for us. What, at first glance, appears to be a director letting an actor run wild is really a necessary and typical plot contrivance. I hazard that if this were truly an “actor’s movie”, that the audience would be given the chance to feel ambivalence about DiMaso (and about the artists). That isn’t the case. We have an emotional response that’s merely in accordance with the story formula. It’s not rocket science but the basis of conventional storytelling.

DiMaso’s targets turn out not really to be criminals. He decides that the mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito played by Jeremy Renner. Polito does not closely fit the pattern I’ve suggested is necessary for the mark. He appears to be a decent family man who is corrupted by the mirage created as part of the confidence scam. He is presented as someone who would not necessarily have broken the law without that inducement, yet who, once he has begun that journey, suffers no moral qualms about the people and methods necessary to bring the mirage into reality. It is an interesting point of ambivalence in the film that arises from the main antagonism between DiMaso and Irving.

If Polito were corrupt then his downfall would not cause any perturbation in the audience. We would regard it in the same way as we cheer for the eventual successful double-crossing of Ray Barboni in Get Shorty. Barboni is just one of the numerous self-interested characters all vying for supremacy via the various confidence games. This would certainly undermine DiMaso as a villain, no matter how much we dislike him as a character. The film would then be adrift in the general amoral malaise of the crime caper genre as a whole. That would not necessarily have been a bad thing – but it would undermine the central struggle between Irving and DiMaso that provides the bulk of the emotional context for the story. In other words, Russell has picked his villain, and it’s DiMaso. Other opponents would simply dilute the drama. Polito’s essential decency then affects Irving, who begins to be gripped with conscience. He began the film with no regard for the desperate people that he was scamming – people who could least afford the luxury of $5000. This is another point that Hustle expertly side-steps: by placing their protagonists at the very pinnacle of the economic summit, where the desperate simply aren’t useful targets, they evade victims an audience could care about. At the end of American Hustle, Irving is virtually a reformed man, going legit, and saving Polito as best he can despite the lack of any concrete incentive to do so. Polito is a necessary catalyst in what Film Crit Hulk would describe as Irving’s dramatic arc.

Nevertheless, Polito is necessary for the expansion of DiMaso’s net of criminal conspiracy – the one he’s forming with the intention of unravelling. Scenes of him being coaxed deeper into the rabbit hole of corruption would be dramatically inert. In structural terms, he is essential to the scam, so plays along. It is a difficult line for an actor to portray successfully, but Jeremy Renner is up to the task, imbuing him with a kind of decency even in the face of obvious corruption. When he is meeting with a congressman to deliver a bribe, he says “just think of it as a campaign contribution” – and for me at least, he made that sound like a genuinely-held view of the character, that this grease was not corruption but assistance for the congressmen to help make the necessary things happen. I’d just about given up on Renner as an actor, and now I have to consider taking him seriously again.

Of course, eventually all the cons are closed up, and the story wraps. We get the solidification of Irving and Sydney’s relationship, them going straight, DiMaso getting his comeuppance, and they all live happily ever after. Of course they do – that’s part of the formula.

I don’t want to diminish the value of excellent acting to this production. I think the entire cast perform excellently, even if Jennifer Lawrence is 10 years too young for her role. I want to show instead that while these performances are good, they are not free-floating, but exist in a strongly constrained formula fiction. The plot may not exactly be the audience’s central motivation to see the film, but I think we need to see how the formulaic needs influenced every part of this story, just as the needs of the romantic comedy formula determined the bulk of the action in Silver Linings Playbook. This is a highly enjoyable romp, but it’s not a game-changer or ground-breaker, and the idea that it’s contesting for the Best Picture Oscar shows how much emphasis those awards have on glamour rather than substance. The best crime caper film I saw this year was The Best Offer, which was a better film on every metric than this one.

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