So I’ve been sitting on this review for about two weeks now. I wanted one of the year’s best reviewed movies to really set in on me and I wanted to think before I spoke, as I am often quick to do. Plus, when a movie isn’t out yet and you get the benefit of a Screener and aren’t entirely sure when it’s kosher to release a review following said viewing… well, you just wait.
And this waiting proved to be a bit unfortunate for David O. Russell’s American Hustle.
Russell’s new flick has been getting nothing but positive reviews and it’s likely the second shoo-in for a Best Picture nominee behind 12 Years a Slave. It features enthusiastic performances from it’s stars, all of which have a very good chance of getting an Oscar nomination as well. Plus Russell is about as hot as it gets right now, when you consider his last three films (including this one) got lots of love from critics, audiences and the awards circuit. It definitely has a ton going for it.
But for me, it’s just an extremely flashy film, with style to spare and lacking substance that really sticks. It isn’t entirely memorable, save for Christian Bale’s gutsy performance as Irving Rosenfeld, a con man with a whole lot going for him. We know this because we are told this in erratic voice-over from both Bale and Amy Adams, who plays Sydney Prosser, Rosenfeld’s accomplice and mistress. The two share an odd relationship, held together by a joint effort to con the gullible into giving them money in order to gain more. This is of course to no avail and the two continue to add mark after mark, enjoying the fruits of their labor.
However, Rosenfeld has another life going on at the same time. He’s the hard-working, Dry Cleaner-owning husband to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a high maintenance housewife who is as unpredictable as she is loud. He bounces between the two lives, playing lavishly with Sydney and then playing father to Rosalyn’s son, whom he has formerly adopted. Irving wants it all and again, we are told he is brilliant and capable and you’re left to root for a character that you know little about except what you’re told. Yes, he’s shown enjoying his time with his ladies, but his con work is glossed over in lieu of the beginning of the main plot – the FBI, led by go-getter Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney and uses their certain set of skills to look to blackmail politicians who they believe to be doing dirty business behind citizens’ backs. This goes as well as one would imagine and when you start conning the con artists, well, you never know what’s going to happen.
And yes, things get a little muddled and the plot thickens as people start falling in love (or at least claiming so) which always makes things all the more interesting. But Russell has written so much into making these characters a bit off that we don’t learn much about them, other than that they are in fact just a bit off. I personally felt like none of the four leads were all that deep and that so much was made about their goals and desires but they were really so flat that it was less invigorating when they either failed or succeeded. I felt like nothing was at stake for me and that I didn’t really care for any of them. The only character I had any empathy for at all was Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Carmine Polito, who unfortunately becomes the biggest mark of them all. He was a likeable character who truly wanted to do some good with his life and he’s the one who the “good guys” are going after. It just felt a little unnecessary. And long.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad because the performances are very strong across the board. Bale is brilliant, as usual, but I did prefer him in Out of the Furnace, despite the physical limits he took his body to yet again. Cooper reminds us that his outstanding performance in Silver Linings Playbook was not an aberration and that he isn’t just another pretty face. What’s interesting about him is that his character might be the most unstable out of all of them and when you add that to his insatiable desire to get to the top of the food chain, he’s really a walking disaster. It’s fun to see him unravel a bit and I appreciated his performance. Sadly, the ladies are the worst part in my opinion. I’m normally a fan of Amy Adams but I really couldn’t stand her character. While I’ve been told her adjusting accents was a great character moment and a strong acting element, I found it distracting and frustrating. And J-Law can best be described by calling her a home run hitter in the Major Leagues. Some of her scenes she knocks right out of the park (namely one where she accompanies Irving to a dinner with the Mayor and his wife) while others she whiffs solidly, almost becoming grating in the process. She’s over-the-top to a fault in my eyes – it’s the right movie for the performance but I wasn’t a fan. Call me crazy.
And maybe that’s the thing that held me back from really enjoying American Hustle – when a film is all about performances and you can’t connect to the characters, it’s tough to find a whole lot of positives. I enjoyed a lot of the little things, whether it was the scene where Irving and Sydney meet or Louis C.K. showing up in a somewhat serious role and stealing every scene and providing the film with a few laughs when it’s apparently a “riotously funny” film (this according to the Rotten Tomatoes consensus – I don’t understand, really, because I didn’t see a ton of humor to be honest). Throw that all together with it seeming, to me, like it was a chance for David O. Russell to let everyone out there know that yes, he has seen a Martin Scorsese film or two. It wants very badly to be Goodfellas with the long takes and musical accompaniment, but it’s definitely not on that level. Russell falls victim to showing off and forgets that it is characters that drive stories and that the ones he created here pale in comparison to even last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, where Cooper and Lawrence shined because of the depth they were given, not in spite of the shallowness they’re left with here.
I know I’m in the minority here and I’m really okay with that. This is definitely the type of movie that gets the Academy’s attention – it has flair, actors that everyone loves, and it features a popular director at the top of his game. What is unfortunate, though, is that it has so much going on to get your attention that it often forgets that it then needs to maintain it. I keep hearing that this film is a blast and nothing but fun and left people smiling through its entirety. I didn’t see that movie, though. I saw one desperate for attention but offering little more than skin-deep characters and muddled plot-lines. And maybe, in a film filled with cons (kinda… sorta) that’s the longest con of them all – David O. Russell got us all hook, line and sinker.