Six Minutes of Hustle

The first six minutes of David O. Russell‘s American Hustle (Sony, 12.13) were shown at the very end of last night’s AFI Fest tribute to Russell at the Egyptian, and of course it wasn’t enough to go on. Not a flicker of a hint of what the film might actually be. What do you expect from an hors d’oeuvre? But it was fine. I chuckled, I laughed, I was fascinated. And Russell talked a lot about his career and his process, and before the Egyptian event we (i.e, the invitees) were all hanging at a pleasant open-air party at the Hollywood Roosevelt that overlooked a big blue pool. Jennifer Lawrence (in a pixie haircut), Jane Fonda and Diane Lane attended along with Russell and a few of his Hustle collaborators. (TheWrap‘s Steve Pond reported that Bradley Cooper was lurking around.)

American Hustle director David O. Russell, costar Jennifer Lawrence at Hollywood Roosevelt party that preceded the American Cinematheque presentation

But the presentation at the Egyptian was pretty close to a technical disaster for the most part. I was amazed that the American Cinematheque staff would assign an all-but-incompetent projectionist or booth person to handle such an event. The Russell q & a started about 55 minutes late (roughly 9:55 pm) due to sound problems, and when the Hustle footage was finally shown the sound still wasn’t working. (The footage had to be stopped and shown over again.) Plus Russell’s microphone was slightly whining and feedbacking.

So how did those six minutes play? I felt amused and intrigued but at the same time (and please don’t take this wrong way) very slightly concerned. What I saw was all show and surface, stylistic exposition minus any personal or emotional undercurrent. The grotesque ’70s sartorial choices (Christian Bale‘s comical combover, Amy Adams‘ bra-less decolletage, Bradley Cooper‘s beard and tight curls, Jeremy Renner‘s Elvis pompadour) were chuckle-worthy but also distancing. It felt like a Saturday Night Live skit about a demimonde of ’70s types who didn’t get it. I didn’t want to focus on how these people looked or dressed — I wanted at least a slight indication about who they might be.

But the opening drops us right into a hotel-room sting of some kind (i.e., Cooper’s Richie DiMaso, a lawman, trying to get Renner’s Carmine Polito, a big-city mayor, to accept a briefcase full of cash) and so it’s all needles and edge and hostility. But then the segment started to review Bale’s childhood background in a kind of Scorsese-like Goodfellas way, which drew me in immediately, and then it ended. The audience let go with a big “awwwww!” Give us more! C’mon….we’re getting into this!

The first shot of the film — a cold open showing Bale’s pot-bellied Irving Rosenfeld character standing in front of a mirror as he fiddles with a hair piece and arranges a combover coif with hair spray — suggested to me that Russell doesn’t feel the affection for his Hustle characters that he showed for his Silver Linings Playbook and Fighter ensembles. What I got from it was Russell telling me “this guy is a low-rent, pot-bellied schmuck…look at that bloated stomach!” I felt compassion for Bale’s character because of this. I wanted to protect him from the derision. Okay, so he’s mostly bald and is resorting to desperate measures to cover that up, but the guy still has feelings. He’s trying. He might be scared and none too bright and even a joke if you want to call him that, but he’s entitled to some dignity.

Yeah, that’s me standing behind Russell, Fonda and Lawrence.

It would be very unlike Russell to not afford Bale and the other characters a measure of dignity and compassion, so again this is what happens when you only show six minutes, and the opening six minutes at that. If you ask me Russell should have shown 10 or 12 or even 15 minutes of footage. The opening plus two or three other scenes that would rounded things out and convey a fuller sense of what the film delivers or at least what it has on its mind.

For now I’m sensing that whatever the sum of Hustle may or may not be, whatever it may say about human nature and our common experience, it is not going to provide comfort-blanket assurances. That probably-all-but-meaningless opener suggested more of a tone of criticizing and snickering and judging people than letting us into their lives a bit and learning what it’s like to walk in their shoes. But at least it’s a film that will get me going. I could tell that right away. My blood is up now that I’m writing about it. This is the glory of award season, whether or not American Hustle comes across as Best Picture material or not.

Thank God for the pulse-quickening effect of award season — my life would be barren without it. And may God and the Devil sign an agreement that all of the CG comic-book superhero jizz-whizzers with their unstoppable lust for shots of guys jumping off 50-story-tall buildings will go straight to hell when they die and spend eternity roasting on a spit.

What is a Best Picture contender? It’s either (a) something bold and blistering and jolting that says “like it or not, this is the truth about our nature and social tendencies” or (b) something warm and heartening and fuzzy-wuzzy that says “you and I are basically okay and everything will be fine as long as love and trust and compassion are alive and throbbing within us.”

Russell told a great story about attending a fund-raiser in 1999 for George Bush the Younger at the home of Terry Semel, then a big Warner Bros. honcho. Russell asked the guy who took him to the party, “Is Terry a Repubican?” The guy replied, “Terry’s an opportunist.” Anyway, Russell got a minute or two of face-time with Bush, and he told the candidate that “I’m editing a film” — Three Kings — “that will question your father’s legacy in Iraq.” And Bush immediately said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to go back there and finish the job.’”

Again, the mp3 of Russell’s q & a.

  • I was more keyed into the opening 6 minutes than Jeff, mainly because I saw the immediate signifiers of insecurity and deception that will likely run through the whole flick. Even Adams’ side-boob points to the “The Yankees win because everyone’s looking at their pinstripes” element from CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, which can be riveting if AMERICAN HUSTLE delves into the person behind the pinstripes and how occupying space as a physical symbol can fuck you up.

    Plus, Steely Dan plays in the opening scene (“Dirty Work”) and the shit with Bale’s hair is legitimately hilarious. Like, Tony Soprano weighing himself, frowning, then taking off his watch hilarious. Russell talked about how he really found his voice, his groove, with THE FIGHTER and it’s continued through to HUSTLE and you can feel that vibe watching. There’s a sort of stylistic command to the film evident even in that little opening.

    • bastard in a basket

      You were there? So not only are you perhaps my favorite commenter here but you also are a Hollywood insider or Jeff Wells type Hollywood blogger obviously Well known enough to get an invite to an event like that?

      I can’t wait for this film but I have one big reservation: the casting. VERY MILD SPOILERS. Bale is a mid level con man with a horrible combover and fat stomach. He’s not supposed to be rich either. Yet I’m supposed to believe he can get Amy Adams who looks incredibly hot in this. Even worse, he’s married to a Jennifer Lawrence who is like one of the hottest women on the planet (if I can quote Lex, LOOK AT HER in that photo). Not only that, JLaw is not good enough for him, so he cheats on her with Amy Adams! If I was married to Jennifer Lawrence I wouldn’t leave my house.

      • Nice of you to say but nah, not an insider. The Russell talk was free to anyone willing to spend a lot of time waiting in line and I live nearby.

      • DuluozRedux

        Oooh look, the milquetoast has a fan!

        • Kano’s_Razor

          milquetoast – 1
          douchetoast – 0


        • Hey Look at the Huge Star

          Hey man, we can’t all claim the “And Twins” Coors ad to our list of highlights of our lives.

      • KEN

        Probably he conned his wife and mistress into the relationship?

        • Yeah, and based on how Adams looks in scene 1 (never better), it’s completely understandable that even a bloated Bale would risk Lawrence to have both.

  • RG2RG

    Wow. I never thought I’d say this, but Jeff has written a really fair analysis and isn’t just blindly praising a director he loves. Caught this at a test screening and have been wondering for some time if Wells would be honest about what it is or keep trying to pump it into something it’s not.

    • bastard in a basket

      So how was it?

      • MovieSquad

        Yes, talk about a leading us on RG2RG. Although from your tone, I take it you didn’t love it.

  • Mr. F.

    Wells, if you’re going to photo-bomb… OWN IT

  • DuluozRedux

    Jennifer Lawrence is a good looking woman, she’s always had way too many chocolate chips for my taste, but she was still pretty. But that haircut? UGH! What a fucking travesty. Girls who chop their hair off are out of their minds.

    And this movie looks like ass. Has this guy ever made a film that wasn’t completely ridiculous?

    • abbey normal

      Every single word you’ve written is incorrect and/or moronic. Well done!

      • DuluozRedux

        So you think Jennifer Lawrence is ugly then? Good to know.

    • pizan܍amore

      I upvoted you just to deny you what you are looking for.

    • MovieSquad

      I think she looks pretty great with that haircut. Plus… those legs!

      Also, what other female celebrity would dare be seen in front of the press with a big band-aid visible on her legs? Respect.

    • chien_clean

      Yea she’s gone Miley Cyrus on us

  • K. Bowen

    JLaw on Wells … “Oh, here comes that dude with the camera again.”
    I have to say, Jeff, I think JLaw looks better in your photos than on screen.

    • Thom Phoolery

      JLaw looked best in Cold Mountain if you ask me.

  • Kano’s_Razor

    Christ, I haven’t seen this much hand-wringing overanalysis over very partial film footage since Harry Knowles broke down the full Phantom Menace trailer shot-by-shot (including roughly 6,000 total exclamation points!!!!!) playing in front of the cinematic masterpiece that was Wing Commander.

    • MovieSquad

      In retrospect, Wing Commander may have been the better movie.

      • Kano’s_Razor

        Having Jar-Jar, Jake Lloyd, and midichlorians in your movie makes for one helluva handicap.

  • Little Jake

    I don’t much care about who gets an Oscar and who doesn’t, because all too rarely the right film or person wins. But it’s more than obvious that many great prestige-level “award” movies ONLY get made because of the awards season. If it weren’t for the awards, if it was all about the money, only the CGI shit and moronic comedies would have been made. Oh, and the ultraviolent thrillers, which I’ve also grown to hate. Nowadays I have such a low tolerance for excessive on-screen violence that (1) I deeply despised Seven Psychopaths, (2) I don’t wanna watch Only God Forgives and (3) I even have second thoughts about seeing The Counselor, even though I appreciate Ridley Scott’s craft and Jeff thumbed it up.

  • pizan܍amore

    It can never be said too often….

    Always do a tech check. Always. Especially if they say it’s unnecessary.

  • Bobby Cooper

    That’s one hell of a Governor Bush story. Jesus.

    • pizan܍amore

      No kidding. Someone should crank out an editorial cartoon with a copy of Three Kings being clutched by Mark David Chapman John Hinckley Charles Manson.

  • David Slovakia

    Love that pic of J-Wells photobombing J-Law!

  • Correcting Jeff

    No upskirt photos this time? I’m disappointed…

    • pizan܍amore

      Yet the people who pause on city sidewalks to avoid walking into somebody’s photo are the philistines.

      Boy, this thread sure is putting up a good fight. I’ve thrown some of my best idiocy at it, and it still won’t die.

    • cyanic

      Curious why Jeff doesn’t think that lying on a public floor is dirty?

  • TheAngryInternet

    So did anyone ask Russell what the hell is going on with Nailed, seeing as it got an MPAA rating a few days ago? Granted I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s totally out of the loop at this point, but still.

  • Joe Leydon

    Is it just my take, or is Jeff spending a lot of time these days hanging around Jane Fonda?

  • chien_clean

    I really cannot stand David O Russell. Seems to be the kind of guy that would eat his mother for success

  • They showed the same six minute opening clips at several other events in the past month, including one I attended last Thursday. While I am quite interested in this film, I am starting to get tired of films that start somewhere in the middle, then bounce around until we get back to the opening scene somewhere late in the second act before getting on to the end. It’s lazy writing, plain and simple.

    • Mechanical Shark

      I too, am tired of films where the story is told out of order. Flashbacks? Please. If you want to tell us information about the characters, you should put them at the beginning, so as not to confuse people. As we all know, Memento and Pulp Fiction were garbage films for precisely this reason.

      • Neither of your films fall in to the scenario I spelled out, Sharky, but you get a D- for effort.