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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

American Hustle 2013 * * 1/2 Stars

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars     Cole's Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Amy Adams

Casting players from his 2010 vehicle The Fighter and his 2012 flick Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell fashions a mixed bag full of big time stars, a script that has shades of obviousness, and a 70's setting that doesn't quite feel that 70's. It's about two con artists who get caught and are forced to work with an FBI agent in hopes of taking down a likable Camden, New Jersey mayor. The two thieves/lovers are played by Christian Bale (in my opinion, the best actor in the business) and Amy Adams. Bradley Cooper (sporting a perm that screams early 80's more than late 70's) plays the agent and Jeremy Renner plays the venerable mayor (Carmine Polito).

As a disappointing yet fairly well acted snore's fest, American Hustle (the film I'm reviewing) is lightly based on true events (the opening title card says this). The first scene grabs you when you get a good look at Bale's character's wretched comb over. After that, the proceedings slide steadily downhill only to wrap things up in a feasible fashion. By then, it's too late. You, as the audience member, walk out of the theater feeling cold, unfulfilled, and cheated. But that's the point right. You got conned out of $10. Hopefully if you haven't seen this thing yet, you'll read further and save your hard earned money.

But if you choose to watch American Hustle, you'll notice that Russell is having a lot of fun with the camera. It's not his biggest strength but he usually does a substantial job. For my money however, he excels at coaching his actors to do good work on screen by letting their emotions become volatile and haphazard. In "Hustle" he unfortunately seems overly confident to the point where he channels his inner Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson (the virtuoso guys who brought you films like Goodfellas and Magnolia). As a result, his neutered technique is not quite as effective here. Along with somewhat imitating their camera movements, there are also a lot of random zooming shots he puts to each character's face. Then you have the whole narration device which is used in every movie these days and that gets old real fast. Finally, you have Russell trying to insert a lot of songs into his movies (this one in particular). His way of doing this pales in comparison to a master like Scorsese. As you take in "Hustle," you'll find that these songs come in at the wrong times and don't quite fit the scenes. And since this exercise takes place in the late 70's (two months in 1978 I think), you get ditties from Elton John, Chicago, Todd Rundgren, and The Bee Gees. These are good tunes yes, but they have been played on the radio a million times. This renders their effect absent of any nostalgia or escapism.

Let's face it, if there is anything to take from "Hustle," it's about the showing off of a big name cast and their performances as opposed to telling a meaningful, interesting story (and adding the use of amateur-like swooping camerawork). You can tell that everyone involved is looking to score Oscar glory. And I'm not being sexist, but the men are much better acting wise than the women. Christian Bale as Irvin Rosenfeld, makes the most of his minutes on screen by far. His turn as a balding, monarchistic con man with a conscience (you'll see later in the film), rings the truest and feels the most natural. Bradley Cooper is pretty solid too. He basically vibes off his screen time in Silver Linings Playbook by playing a manic, unstable, and kooky FBI agent (Richie DiMaso) who's ultimately dumber than he seems (a tiny spoiler alert, sorry). Then there's the cameos which are pretty darn good (Robert De Niro and Michael Pena are quietly effective as a mob boss and a phony sheik). But hey, I haven't mentioned the female roles yet. Their screen time in these roles disappointed me because these are starlets that I really adore. They seem to be trying too hard and unlike their best turns as actresses, here you could tell that they're you know, just acting. Amy Adams overdoes it as con woman Sydney Prosser. Her character motivation comes off as silly because she seems to be a bit wishy-washy on who she has a romantic interest in (if you view "Hustle," you'll know what I mean). As for Lawrence, she kinda lets me down more than anyone else. As brilliant a movie star as she's been in the past, her work as Bale's character's wife, exhibits a pale imitation of herself. It's like she's trying to be Jennifer Lawrence even though she's already in fact, Jennifer Lawrence.

Overall, I can't for the life of me, figure out why this thing is a so-called "critical darling." It's not necessarily a bad film but it lacks elements of Russell's work that highlight his strongest traits as a freewheeling director. With the exception of letting his actors roam free and escalate their scenes (a trait that I like), "Hustle" doesn't possess the confident wit and thought provoking smear of his 2004 gem I Heart Huckabees. And it doesn't equal the invigorating deepness and daunting soul of his big hit from last year being Silver Linings Playbook. So what are we left with: a sort of dull, empty, uninteresting yet moderately well acted film that is almost saved by a nifty little ending. "Hustle" drifts and drags along all the while boring the audience for 80% of its running time. It's compelling to a fault (if you factor in Bale's character's predicament) but it's plot driven in a way that doesn't cater to what the filmmakers who worked on it, know best. David O. Russell, who's too gifted a director and doesn't know the meaning of being lazy, is incapable of ever actually shooting an awful movie. However, if you consider his American Hustle to be brilliant and/or worthy of the Academy's highest accolades, ultimately you've probably been "hustled" yourself.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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