Saturday, May 3, 2014

American Hustle

(David O. Russell, USA, 2013)

All in all, it's a strictly lightweight affair, but it packs in more freewheeling fun per square-inch of screen than most features in recent memory; in his aggressively witty way, Russell has crafted a near-masterpiece of cinema.

It's true that it's missing a vital component of depth; the film's flaw, which keeps it from reaching the heights of greatness is the stubborn insistence on aiming just shy of high.  What makes this particularly noticeable is the apparent perspicuity of Russell, whose best stuff, even when very funny, can be positively lacerating.  Watching him scrap his way into the mainstream has been fascinating, and his very careful calibration of his anarchic sensibility to certain formal conventions is a feat of dazzling deftness, even if it eventually results in an underwhelming experience.  Therefore, it's easy to see Hustle as very personal for the director, even if it eventually takes the form of self-flattery: like his grifter heroes, he's someone who's worked tenaciously to make a space for himself in a harsh, competitive world. 

As the con artists say, you have to be in it "from the feet up;" only a total commitment to the role you're playing will suffice.  Russell commits himself utterly in this unabashedly sentimental story, but his conviction is so complete that he winds up winning over the audience, even through the various excesses of the narrative.   At the same time, the whole film hums with a giddy self-consciousness; it might be the most meta movie of the last decade.  The theme of performance is underlined so many times that it would be absurd if it weren't the raison d'etre for the whole enterprise.   The action is basically a succession of acting showcases, and everybody brings their A game.  It's rare to see such an orgy of thespian excess, and it would be a complete disaster if it weren't cast with such top-notch and eager players.   In scene after scene, the actors find themselves to be kids in a candy store, with dialogue that crackles in its manic loopiness, and they all jump gamely in, and the results are very satisfying indeed. 

Lots of the cinema-making is noticeably derivative of 70s Scorsese, but Russell does have a way with the camera, and once again, his willingness to throw himself into the material redeems even the most shamelessly secondhand of creative choices.  And there are some sublimely poetic moments; as much as the phrase "pure cinema" sets my teeth on edge, Russell achieves lovely synergies of music and moving image that recall just that shopworn phrase. 

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