Film Review: American Hustle

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The Bullshitters

American Hustle’s a likable, engaging picture that’s only likely to disappoint audiences who’ve had contact with its marketing. David O. Russell’s comic caper has been sold as a Scorsese-style bygone crime drama with a little gangster violence kneaded in. In reality it’s lighter and less substantial than that, a movie affected with a wry shtick that in the absence of compelling drama and realist characterisation, threatens to become an irritant long before the film’s end. You might say that’s the con perpetrated by the filmmakers on the expectant audience.

The original title, American Bullshit, better signals the film’s tone. It’s stocked with characters that never convince as real human beings but nevertheless entertain as rich and well used comic creations. Christian Bale’s con man, Amy Adam’s mock-English moll, Jennifer Lawrence’s scatty wife and the try hard FBI agent that’s ostensibly pulling their strings, made zealous and vapid by Bradley Cooper, are all faintly ridiculous but stay the right side of the line. The performances are committed, funny and at times so earnest, it’s as if they’ve been imported from a real drama, and it’s this zeal that keeps you watching as the sting unfolds in the background, never being as consequential or dominant as you might expect.

What frees Hustle from the constraints of its comedic treatment is O. Russell’s decision to appropriate the texture, rhythm and straight laced delivery of the gangster dramas it resembles; the result being something like a close relative who shares some of the preoccupations of the parent genre. As you’d expect from any period piece, particularly one interested in the corruption of the American dream, there’s broad attempts at tying the movie’s perfidious plotting and immoral characters to the era’s cultural baggage – Watergate, Vietnam, rampant inflation and economic decline. We’re invited to (fleetingly) reflect that Bale and his retinue represent the corrupt face of a degenerating society, where status is paramount but the values are, to borrow from that working title, bullshit.

The problem is that the film’s frivolous bent make it hard to accept it as a snapshot of an age. The movie’s rooted in historic events, “some of this actually happened” notes a typically wry caption, but O. Russell, who walks the tightrope between caper and comedy throughout, is more interested in the characters’ eccentricities and vainglorious dress, their affected personas, than social commentary. The result is something like a pastiche of a ‘70’s Sidney Lumet picture: well made, well performed but lacking the bite and shrewd intelligence of the older movies it reminds you of. In this way it’s a better movie about modern American filmmaking than the era it recreates.

Directed by: David O. Russell

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 138 mins

Certificate: 15 for Americans stupid enough to believe that the British economy of 1978 can provide a more stable line of credit than US banks, Bradley Cooper's hair and ignoring microwave instructions.

3 Responses

  1. tim earnshaw says:

    I love this movie on just about every level. I don’t care if it’s great art or not (nor, I suspect, does its director). It’s good-hearted, laughing with rather than at, has a very satisfying sting, looks great … funny and compassionate … knowing without being camp … and layered detail that repays repeat viewings … okay. I’m done.

  2. julie says:

    Aha! Yes, I caught the movie meta myself. Its “filmic” aspects were wonderful. I loved the look of the movie, it looked like film rather than the too-brilliant and sharp look of digital, and I was right about that (yes, I looked up the technical specs!). I loved that there was not one special effect in the movie, and how the camera spent most of its time on faces. This is so old-school (see Sunset Boulevard “we had faces!”), as is sitting in a theater albeit a partitioned one, seeing those faces bigger than life, and savoring what great actors do in closeup.

    Besides the more than a nod to Goodfellas, the scene where Amy Adams’s character drops her accent and confesses to the FBI agent tells me somebody watched Vertigo more than once (“My name is Judy Barton! I come from Salina Kansas!”).

    Another fascination for me was how changing phone technology have figured into movie plots over the years. The log headset cords, listening in on an extension, just asking someone “can you get to a phone?” showed up all over AmHust and created an element of suspense so different from our phone-in-pocket times.

    All of which is to say, I loved the details of the movie, even as it was something of a mess. Way too complicated, and while I loved the acting, the only character about whom I cared or felt interest in was Jeremy Renner’s sympathetically played Mayor Polito. That he was entrapped was the only serious moment in a movie that could have been a political thriller rather than the overlong caper flick it is. I’m sorry to say that the Abscam scandal was treated in this movie with no more gravitas than the Oceans Pick-a-Number franchise. In fact, it came across as a very long Three Stooges episode, the stooges being Christian Bale (Moe), Amy Adams (Larry), and Bradley Cooper, who is both curly and Curly.

  3. Teelar says:

    American Hustle was very disappointing. The biggest hustle here is convincing millions of viewers that this is a great movie. Yes, the performances are uniformly good, and it gives the illusion of having tied everything together neatly, but with even the slightest bit of thought to the logic of the ending, it is actually insulting. A hustle implies that at least one of the characters has been planning something from the start, not experieng a change of heart.
    First, it is lazy writing that brings back a character that was on screen for a split second as an integral part of the ‘reveal’. Any good reveal should be at least catchable on second viewing. This is the equivalent of the Russian cook in ‘Hunt for the Red October’. What? You didn’t pick that one guy out of the party at the beginning of the film who disappears entirely both on screen and off until brought back as a nifty little device that wraps it all up? It doesn’t matter that he’s the cold cut King of New Jersey, or hosted the party where Irving and Sydney first meet. It is irrelevant. It could have been the pool boy, or the caterer of the party, or the guy who lives in the apartment above me.
    Also when exactly is the cutaway scene of Bradley Cooper and other FBI agents bursting in the office to make an arrest only to be told that the occupant had been in the office for twenty-five years supposed to take place? Obviously not AFTER the scene in the FBI office where he gets sent home. And if it happened before, why, after spending millions of dollars and countless man hours to set up a sting only to be conned themselves did the FBI NOT call in Irving and Syd then? They were the only other people in the room. What did the FBI do? Go back to the office and play Pong? Say “nah, forget it, maybe next time”? Would they have ever called them in if they hadn’t gotten an anonymous phone call?
    Obviously, the reveal is not the only element to this story. Russel mentions some pretty interesting themes going on here, the American dream, what we’ll do to achieve it, who we’ll lie to (including ourselves) to get it, the ambiguity of right and wrong, black and white, etc. But, there is no arc here. We’re told from the get go to not expect to actually learn much about the real events and people that inspired the story. Many of the scenes feel as if the first two lines were written because they seem cinematic and then filled in from there, giving no final thought to what it all means or if it makes any sense. Like thousands of screen writers trying to emulate Tarantino after Pulp Fiction was released, the film makers here have given us a lot of the elements that make the great movies great, but they don’t add up to much.
    The one theme that did come through clearly and strongly was the idea that people will believe what they want to believe, and people want to believe that this is a great movie. That’s what Russel is good at, creating buzz about his projects that seem to elevate his slight stories to awards contenders. But with almost zero emotional or intellectual impact, and a sloppy story, which you could literally fast forward to the last ten minutes of and get all you need, there is just not much to study here, or ponder, or even be entertained by.
    Lastly, the most offensive thing is how craftily these film makers seem to intentionally never finish the ice fishing story just so we can think about their film again later and wonder what happened to poor Louis C.K.’s brother. That, my friend’s is the brilliance of creating a product, a brand if you will. Not art. Maybe they realized how little else they were giving us to think about after we’ve left the theater.