This Oscar favorite has all the ingredients of a world-beater: a superb cast, David O. Russell directing, and the sort of backstory that ought to add up to blockbuster status. Every awards show – including Oscar – has taken serious notice. And from a marketing perspective, let’s just say this film is clearly being represented by the best of the best.
Unfortunately, despite the hype and industry excitement, I emerged from the theater this past weekend profoundly underwhelmed. Aside from seeming far too much like a watered-down version of Goodfellas (and in Russell’s defense, I suppose most directors – even the best – experience a “Scorsese moment”), it just lacked that indescribable “buzz” one hopes for from excellent filmmaking. Also, especially for directors who’ve already developed a powerfully individualistic style, slipping into “derivative mode” rarely creates a positive outcome. And so it was with American Hustle – although seeing as the film has now been received by so many with admiration and accolades (e.g., winning the Screen Actors’ Guild’s highest award Sunday evening), I’ll acknowledge my position may seem more than a little contrarian. But hear me out . . .
At its core, American Hustle is a comedy/drama ostensibly about the 1970s ABSCAM Congressional corruption sting. Now, most would agree that’s a great subject to cover and a fascinating story from numerous perspectives. However, in this case, it is American Hustle’s strained effort both to evoke humor AND explain an exceedingly complex moment in American political/legal history that ends up doing neither with anywhere near the panache one would expect from somebody of Russell’s stature – not to mention an ensemble cast possessing monumental talent.
The movie revolves around Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, his usual terrific self, playing a character that is sometimes painfully tough to enjoy), his wacky wife Roslyn (Jennifer Lawrence, who was OK – I guess – but not Oscar-worthy IMHO), his partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (a good, not great, Amy Adams) and a too-cool-for-school FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (another good, not great, performance by Bradley Cooper). The plot has DiMaso plucking Rosenfeld and Sydney from their profitable grifting business and blackmailing them into ensnaring corrupt politicians with an elaborate scheme that the script suggests had more to do with furthering DiMaso’s career than achieving actual justice.
Personally, my problem with most “dramedies” of this nature is that they have to be laser-focused in order actually to deliver on their twin promises. Especially, in the context of films centered around real-world events, the model tends to work best when the historical incident in question actually had significant comedic elements. ABSCAM (an FBI operation using a fake Arab sheik to ferret out political corruption) certainly did have such moments – just probably not enough of them . . .
In truth, the real ABSCAM story is much more a cautionary tale about government overreach, entrapment, racist stereotypes and the politics of vicious personal destruction. Hence, despite substantial efforts to lighten the mood, the movie almost has to feel inherently ponderous. I wish Russell had picked a lane and stuck to it. This basic flaw is also compounded by the fact that the characters are painted with an overly positive gloss (presumably, to keep them funny). Consequently, the seediness of their real world counterparts never quite rises to the surface. Moreover, the real story would have been interesting enough without resorting to numerous historical inaccuracies. So what do we get? Essentially one quasi-drama and one quasi-comedy, both unartfully rolled together – and each unnecessarily diluted by the other.
The initially enjoyable site-gag of seeing a combed-over, fat Christian Bale is introduced (and then effectively wasted) only minutes after the opening credits. He carries the movie, as he so often does; yet his character ends up becoming so low-voltage that he nevertheless simultaneously slows the film’s pace. At moments, it feels like whenever it’s precisely the right time to be dramatic, Bale shifts into a “Look at me! I’m acting! “ physicality that just doesn’t send the necessary message . . . And conversely, when humor actually is appropriate, he’s oddly uptight. Just an observation – but notable because Bale’s work is usually so much more carefully nuanced.
Jennifer Lawrence tries to be over the top in a good way but instead often ends up looking (and sounding) like most Upper East Siders after an overly late sojourn at Lexington Bar & Books. She absolutely has her moments though and, to be honest, I would have enjoyed more lines and camera time. Unfortunately, her character remains mostly only a sketch – lacking that “flesh and blood” really great performances demand.
Amy Adams’ character helps drive Bale’s enterprise while creating at least some suspense as to whether she’ll reverse Di Maso’s ambitions or (seductively) collude with him instead. However, her role clearly wasn’t written with an intent to drive the storyline. Bradley Cooper does do a good job of conveying false confidence, and displays a certain oddly enjoyable variety of ineptitude. Nevertheless, I frequently found myself considerably more focused on the fate of Louis C.K.’s character (in particular, with regard to a somewhat bizarre ice-fishing story that serves as one of the films recurring leitmotifs) than I ever was on Cooper’s DiMaso (in reality, of course, a VASTLY more important character if you’re viewing this as a movie about ABSCAM . . .) That’s just never a good sign for a project if your aiming, even partially, to depict real-world events.
Put differently, perhaps the film suffers from what I’d call a “Spider Man 3” problem. (And yes – that is a technical industry term) The SM3 occurs whenever a movie is weighed down by too many supposedly important characters – each fueled by overly high voltage casting. As an example, Robert DeNiro shows up in a rather minimal cameo. Somebody with that level of greatness requires purpose in order to add value. In American Hustle, it’s sorely lacking. Instead of thinking about the plot, you find yourself wondering: “Hey – Why did HE just show up???” Things likely would have worked considerably better if that Easter egg had been handed out to some random but talented character-actor who actually needs the work . . .
American Hustle also has too many divergent plotlines, each requiring individual build-up and resolution. As a result, I’d have to imagine Russel spent countless hours in the editing room, cutting scenes, not for the of sake quality, but simply to somehow achieve a studio-acceptable running time.
This film easily could have worked as pure drama given the actual insanity of ABSCAM, the intensity of the “mission” and the UNFATHOMABLE luck needed to pull off its final caper. Alternatively, if produced as an unabashed comedy, American Hustle might also at least have had a real shot at success – especially considering that these are all highly charismatic actors playing manic characters trapped in a plot sufficiently preposterous as to be begging for more of a “Midnight Run” vibe.
Despite my disappointment, I’ll admit there were some true highlights. The scenes between Lawrence and Bale were nearly always funny in ways that didn’t feel forced. I found Jeremy Renner to be surprisingly touching and likable as the corrupt, but well-meaning mayor of Camden, NJ. Having spent time around numerous politicians myself, his performance 100% nails that “hard to pin down” sort of charm most successful politicians can effortlessly exhibit. And the script is equally on-point in demonstrating not merely how – but why – elected officials so often find themselves rationalizing corruption as something that’s ultimately justifiable. After all, if you always play by the rules, you’ll never get anything done for the folks back home, right? (Or at least not quickly enough to win the next election). And it certainly isn’t a stretch to see why people would vote for that guy – and even stick by him if convicted. Hell, I probably would.
Meanwhile, Louis C.K. basically plays himself as a bureaucratic FBI supervisor – and that’s good for everybody – even with regard to that ice fishing story . . . Plus, The 70’s soundtrack which could have been overbearing, instead impressively adds to the overall atmosphere.
To sum up: American Hustle is a movie that is obviously being bandied about for multiple Oscars. A lot of people out there apparently really like it. As for me, it just left me flat. It was – at best – “OK.” If that makes me a contrarian, so be it.
Besides, I somehow doubt David O. Russell has been staying up nights waiting for me to chime in.