American Hustle

On a recent episode of Filmspotting, guest Michael Phillips referred to David O’Russell’s recent movies as “neurotic screwball” comedies. The descriptor fits well. O’Russell’s recent slate of highly regarded films – The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle – feature a His Girl Friday-like cast of witty, fast talking schemers whose psychological hang-ups complicate and confound their plans.

American Hustle sees O’Russell regulars Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper (augmented this time by Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Louis C.K.) finagling various con-jobs against one another in hopes of exposing the corruption of, well, everyone whether or not they’re really corrupt. Robert DiNero even pops up in a fun cameo as the only person being perfectly honest with everyone (proving, perhaps, that the only roles he’s willing to put any effort into these days are the ones guided by O’Russell).

American Hustle is terrifically entertaining while you are watching it, but it doesn’t leave you much to consider afterwards unless you’re willing to go further down the road of emotional maladjustment than the movie. The characters’ emotional hang-ups are so exaggerated, they become like icons of mental instability. If you think it’s okay to laugh at hyperbolically maladjusted people, you’ll enjoy American Hustle. Jennifer Lawrence is particularly entertaining as a phobic house wife whose ability to lash out at her husband passive aggressively is nothing short of Herculean.

On the other hand, if you don’t find emotional manipulation humorous, you probably won’t like this movie at all.

American Hustle also includes a panache of cultural commentary to make it seem as weighty as awards season’s other cinematic entrees. The movie makes a case that American success is nothing more than a veneer we spread over our true selves. In the movie, those veneers are as easy to see through as cheap hairpieces or as opaque as an avowed commitment to political justice. In every case, outward appearances mask deeper pain.

The movie itself doesn’t take this very seriously. It’s content to use the unmasking of these false appearances as narrative twists. The movie more interested in being fun than being profound. (It is very fun.)

It is true though that we are often are very adept at disguising our fears. Sometime, we can get so good at this that we appear successful. For example, I used to be (and still am at times) terrifically afraid of uncertainty in relationships. To compensate, I tended to over-commit to people even when our relationship didn’t warrant such strong commitment. I appeared to be selflessly devoted when actually I was very selfishly running from my fear of uncertainty. Without exception, those relationships faltered. When I peeled back the veneer, admitted my fear, and allowed the uncertainty to persist, I discovered true relationships.

We ought not hide our weaknesses. The Bible contends again and again that God is on the side of the weak. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble people who are aware of and unafraid of their weaknesses are people living truthfully. After all, we are all small and weak compared to God, God is on our side, and God wants us to be for each other. Accepting this puts us in right relationship with God and each other. This is the only firm foundation on which to build a relationship.

The characters in American Hustle get there too, to that place of right relationship with each other, but it’s more of the place the movie needs to go to feel complete than it is a correctly tuned narrative world worthy of reflection and celebration. American Hustle is content to be clever instead of compelling.