Friday, January 3, 2014

Movie Review: American Hustle

American Hustle
Directed by: David O. Russell.
Written by: Eric Singer and David O. Russell.
Starring: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Louis C.K. (Stoddard Thorsen), Jack Huston (Pete Musane), Michael Peña (Paco Hernandez / Sheik Abdullah), Shea Whigham (Carl Elway), Alessandro Nivola (Anthony Amado), Elisabeth Röhm (Dolly Polito), Paul Herman (Alfonse Simone), Saïd Taghmaoui (Irv's Sheik Plant), Robert De Niro (Victor Tellegio).

American Hustle is an entertaining mess of a movie. It has a talented ensemble cast, all of whom are excellent, and almost every scene in the movie is entertaining in and of itself. I just don’t think the movie really adds up to anything – it has an awkward structure, and the scenes don’t really flow together. David O. Russell is clearly influenced by Martin Scorsese – it shows in many of the film's visual tricks. The difference between Russell and Scorsese is that Russell seems to be doing much of the tricks simply because they look cool. After two hours and twenty minutes, I walked out of the theaters having had a good time, but really having no idea what the movie was trying to say. It lacks any real point of view. But yes, the film is fun.

The film is about a con artist named Irving (Christian Bale) with a crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who he wishes he could leave, but just cannot quite bring himself to do so. When he meets Sydney (Amy Adams) he meets his equal – a woman just as charming and amoral as he is – someone he can team up with to pull off his many scams. One of those scams draws the attention of the FBI – and agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) has Sydney nailed – but offers the two partners a deal. If Irving and Sydney will help him nail some other con artists, he’ll let them both walk. What starts small soon grows beyond what anyone expected when they hook Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who wants to rebuild Atlantic City – which leads to even bigger politicians and eventually the mob.

The reason to see American Hustle is the performances – all of which are excellent. We are introduced to Bale’s Irving going through an elaborate comb over routine. With the comb over, the big belly, the nasty chest hair, Bale seems to be trying hard to get away from his normal tough guy image – and it works. This is a fully committed comedic performance – he’s the one character in the movie that I never quite knew what he was going to do next – which makes him exciting to watch. Amy Adams is even better as his partner Sydney – at times donning a phony British accent. She’s always on, always looking for an angle. She’s the best conman in a movie full of conmen. Bradley Cooper does excellent work as Richie DiMaso – the FBI agent who starts to believe his own hype. He’s wonderful in his scenes with Adams, where the poor dumb bastard is the only one who doesn’t realize he’s being played. He’s even better when paired with Louis C.K. – who may in fact deliver my favorite performance in the movie – as his buttoned down boss. Jeremy Renner does fine work as Carmine Polito – who proves himself to be corrupt early in the movie, but may in fact be the most honest character in the movie – he does the wrong thing, but for the right reasons. Everyone else does the wrong thing for their own personal gain. Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence, who truly is a force of nature as Rosalyn, who may well be certifiably insane, but breathes life into her every scene in the movie. There is fine work by the large supporting cast – including a one scene wonder by Robert DeNiro, who should work with Russell every time, because along with Silver Linings Playbook, this is the best he’s been in years.

I had fun with American Hustle – especially in the first half of the movie, which was the part of the movie where I thought Russell may be building to something. But I was also a little disappointed in the film – because ultimately, Russell doesn’t build to anything. He’s made an entertaining con job movie – and little else – which is fine as far as it goes. But the problem is that unlike the best con job movies – from The Sting to Ocean’s 11 – American Hustle never really surprised me. The big reveals at the end of the movie are telegraphed from early on in the movie. The bigger problem is that the movie doesn’t have much flow. Each individual scene is fine by themself, but when taken together as a whole, they don’t really add up to anything. The film is about conmen, corrupt politicians, the Mafia – and yet it doesn’t seem to have any point of view on any of it. I find it hard to believe that The Wolf of Wall Street has taken some heat for apparently glamorizing criminals – when it should be clear the movie isn’t – and American Hustle has taken none of the same heat. These people are criminals as well – we meet them as they are scamming desperate people into giving them money in order to secure a loan to keep them afloat (a loan they have no intention of ever providing) – and yet it’s also clear that the movie loves these guys. We are supposed – and do – cheer for them throughout the movie. The movie gives them the happy ending we want – but do the characters really deserve that happy ending?

David O. Russell is a talented director. Personally, I liked his earlier, more daring movies like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, in which he seemed to be pushing towards something greater. His last three movies – The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle – have all been genre exercises. American Hustle is the least successful of those films. Perhaps the film was rushed in the editing – Russell’s films are usually not this messy and choppy. Or perhaps my expectations were just too high. American Hustle is a fun con job movie – not a particularly original movie, but a lot of fun. It may not be quite the film I hoped it would be, but for what it is, it’s a good film.

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