Wednesday, January 1, 2014


American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell
Written by David O. Russell & Eric Sanger

     Oh, if only American Hustle knew what it wanted to be. A comedy? A drama? A mixture of both? Does it have to be labelled any one of these categorical genres? Maybe not, but the film is a mixed bag that has some fine, funny as hell moments, but does not deliver completely by the end. To be honest, it is director David O. Russell attempting to do his best Martin Scorsese impression, but not pulling it off. That is a hard task for any director. The music is great and used perfectly. The acting, as always with a Russell film, is spot on. But, unlike his last two pictures, this film had too many dull or lagging moments and serious tonal issues. The film just had too many flat instances and scenes that caused it to feel bogged down, instead of a smooth, structured piece of excellent cinema from one of the best directors around. I still appreciated and enjoyed this piece of straight on entertainment, but that is about all it had to offer.
     American Hustle is a highly fictionalized take on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s and early 80s. A scam that involved rebuilding Atlantic City as a US gambling center and catching government officials getting paid off. FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) gets way in over his head when he cons serious con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his main accomplice or assistant or brains of the operation Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) into working with him to catch corrupt politicians that are involved in Russell's version of the scandal. An Arabian sheik (Michael Peña), who is not Arabic at all, a group of Florida gangsters and a New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) are all entangled in this set up. Oh yeah, even though Irving is madly attracted to Sydney, he still has a big-mouthed wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who will become more of a problem than a solution to the plans of all.
     Nothing too problematic, in following the story, but the delivery is lacking in any impact or structure. I thought this film was extremely funny and the acting is some of the best of the year, as to be expected, but you would get a moment of moderate suspense, good mix of music, acting and directing or a flat out piece of comedy, than get to, well, too much talking that did nothing for the story. The biggest problem is the script, when I really think about it. It leads to serious tonal issues where nothing really seems to know what it is or what it wants to be. The narrative is too heavy, but clunky. Russell reworked original screen writer Eric Sanger's script, so who knows what that the first version was like. Feels rushed. The editing is good when used with music, especially in a scene with the whole cast and the Elton John song "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road," but a little boring when continuing the story. The editing needed to be sharp, trimmed of any excess. Like a Scorsese film. This did seem like an attempt at a Goodfellas type feel for a film, but there is only one Scorsese and Russell just did not pull it off with this comedy-crime film.
     However, even with all of that mild disappointment, the acting is exceptional. To start with, Christian Bale, who did another weight change and gained at least 40 to 50 pounds for this role, nails everything right on in Hustle. He portrays the confidence of an established, low-end crook, the neurotic ways of a man lost between two women and the balls out craftsmanship of a con man at work. The weight, the god awful comb over which is hilarious in itself, and the horrific looking outfits fit the time period and the goofy appearance of this low level, but crafty New York con artist. His beautiful co-worker Sydney is played deliciously sensational by Amy Adams. Both of these actors were in Russell's The Fighter, and they are just as good in Hustle as in that film. She plays Sydney, who hides her true identity of a Northeastern woman with a successful British accent, and is as sultry as she as ever been. She is fantastic playing this woman that wants to hide her past and be something completely different than what she came from. Adams and Bale are wonderful together. You can really tell these two feel comfortable and in control when working with Russell, and he gets the two best performances in the film from these two.
     Cooper plays DiMaso with a high level comedic and cocky prowess that fits the mold. He is almost a little too crazy and with those millions of curls on top of that head, he gives a solid, but over-the-top performance. It definitely fits his character and he delivers some great one liners. Lawrence, who has been getting most of the attention since this film first screened, is very good, but nothing that I would say is even close to her fantastic work in Russell's last film Silver Linings Playbook. She is highly aloof and a straight shooter. She has a very funny scene with Bale and microwave "science oven." Just watch it. She eventually gets fed up with Iriving, but Irving is fed up with her and only wants to protect his business and the son he adopted from Rosalyn's previous relationship. I really enjoyed watching Lawrence in this film, but she and Cooper are nowhere near as good as Bale and Adams. The entertainment value is there with Cooper and Lawrence, and the laughs are great, but Bale and Adams hold the loose script together and are really the stars of the film.
    Another thing I really enjoyed was the outlandish, big-hair, disco-era clothes and overall style of the whole production. It is completely and way over-the-top, but worked within the confines of the story. Good cameo from Robert DeNiro, really great stuff from him and I hopes he continues to work with Russell cause it is the best stuff he is doing by a long shot. Jeremy Renner is sold as well, but does not have the juicy lines as the rest of the cast has.
     American Hustle could have been so much more, but was a mildly entertaining Scorsese knock-off. I am not saying I disliked the film, but it was about a half hour too long and needed better editing and a tighter script. This film has a somewhat obvious trick ending that will satisfy most movie-goers, but was a little disappointing and "too obvious" for me. The acting really saves this from being a highly mediocre film and the performances are the entertaining high point of Hustle. I want to see it again and give it another shot, but this is mid-level Russell. Good, but nowhere near as good as Three Kings, The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees and Silver Linings Playbook. An entertaining yarn of excess and shows the stupidity of all involved, and maybe that is what the point of the film is, but I wanted a comedy with a little more. I did not feel like it had much to say. Greed, corruption and drugs are bad, but that was far better presented in Scorsese's masterful The Wolf of Wall Street. Some great performances, but a sloppy narrative holds this one back. By the end, I was asking myself what the hell was ABSCAM?

Photo credit by IMDB.

1 comment:

  1. Good review Joshua. This whole cast was a treat to watch and just play around one another. Especially whenever either Cooper or Lawrence were on-screen.