On December 3rd 2013 it was announced that the New York Film Critic’s Circle has selected as their best movie of that year the new David O. Russell film American Hustle. That film had skipped the festival circuit and its review embargo had not lifted at the time of the Circle’s vote, so that award win was something of an announcement of what was going to be a major award contender that year. It then proceeded to get a great deal of praise, earned over $150 million at the box office, and garnered ten Academy Award nominations. But then something seemed to just “snap” in the culture. Something of a backlash seemed to emerge around the movie, not over any particular element or controversy, but some people just really didn’t like it or at least didn’t like it as much as they expected from a ten time Oscar nominee that some people were holding up as the year’s best in a fairly stacked year. It ended up losing every single one of those Oscars and, seemingly embarrassed for having over praised American Hustle, critics seems almost unreasonably hard on his flawed follow-up Joy as almost a make-up call. And now, seven years later, that distaste of Russell seems to have curdled if anything as they have been similarly ruthless toward his belated next film Amsterdam, which is appearing to be on track to be a fairly substantial box office failure as well. Does it deserve such infamy, I don’t think so, but it does have definite issues which need to be parsed.
The film is set in New York in 1933 and follows three rather unique people: a doctor named Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) who works at a clinic for the poor, a lawyer named Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) who does a lot of work with Berendsen to similar ends, and a wealthy artist named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who because of some ailment lives with her brother Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and his rather hostile wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). These three people met during the First World War, after the three remained in Europe and lived a Design for Living-esque life in Amsterdam for a couple of years before eventually parting ways. Berendsen and Woodsman are working together again in New York and are hired by a woman named Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift) to investigate the mysterious death of her father Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), a general that the two had known and respected during their military service. They do find evidence of foul play but Elizabeth is then murdered by what appears to be a hired thug (Timothy Olyphant) and the two become suspects in said murder. To clear their names they have to follow down the mystery, which will lead them to reunite with Voze and uncover a conspiracy that targeted Meekins and may also come to target another general and veterans rights activist named Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro).
You can probably tell from that summery that this movie has a lot of characters, almost all of them played by pretty major celebrities. I didn’t even get around to bringing up the characters played by Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Zoe Saldaña, Andrea Riseborough, or Matthias Schoenaerts. The film needs to take time to introduce all these people and give them their “thing” and in general some of them are more distracting than others. Very late in the movie it suggests that all these characters are important because they represent some sort of tapestry of life but functionally it kind of just makes the whole movie feel very, very, busy. Structurally American Hustle is the movie Russell seems to be trying to recapture as both films take these not very well known footnotes in history and try to turn them into shaggy dog stories that border on screwball comedy. Both movies start with non-committal tag “Some of this actually happened” but I feel like even more liberties were taken with this one.
The real even at play here is the so called “Business Plot” of 1933, an alleged coup plot against Roosevelt plotted by wealthy industrialists that was exposed by Marines General Smedley Butler (the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character) at a congressional hearing. Congress took this seriously, but the media largely viewed it as a hoax and it was much too tangled to lead to criminal charges for anyone. Today historians are not quite sure what to make of the whole thing, some think it was a very serious threat, others suspect it was just some cocktail chatter that got way out of hand. Of course all of this seems to be of much more serious relevance given the January 6th coup attempt that we all witnessed less than two years ago, and while that relevance could have been a boon for this movie I think it may have actually been more of a liability as it may have reduced people’s appetites to see all of this play out as a background element to three wholly fictional weirdos bumbling around and slipping on banana peels for two hours.
The movie’s appeal or lack thereof is a little hard to sum up. It’s certainly not a completely unenjoyable movie; I was basically never bored watching it. The thing is the movie is just a very odd stew with far too many ingredients. They seem to have financed this thing by getting as many celebrities on board as possible, each working for only a week or two, meaning they need to invent a character for each of them and also give each of them a big weird personality. Some of these characters are enjoyable to be around. I certainly liked most scenes featuring Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie is pretty strong throughout. But then there are other people here like Rami Malek who are capital-A annoying, and the movie kind of goes off the rails whenever they show up. Christian Bale is also going way too big and overall the movie is pretty much never as funny as it seems to think it is or as it should be. Right up until the end I was still kind of on the movie’s side but then at a certain point I needed this thing to get to the point and it pretty much never gets there. Russell clearly thinks the true story that inspired this is interesting, but he buries it in so many fictional characters that it’s hard to really learn much about it from the movie with any certainty and the film’s interest in the racism of the time is not terribly insightful and at times seems downright flippant. Maybe this is how American Hustle felt to that movie’s detractors. Despite all that, and acknowledging that the movie doesn’t entirely work I do still find myself defending it on some level. There are much worse movies than this which get much easier passes than this one has gotten. That said, David O. Russell is way overdue for a re-invention and I hope he comes with fresher ideas for the next one.
**1/2 out of Five