Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews American Hustle

There’s no question in my mind that David O. Russell is a terrifically skilled director, and it’s been interesting seeing how his recent films have been able to blend his idiosyncratic sensibilities with a slightly more mainstream approach.  I had some problems with Silver Linings Playbook but over-all I really enjoyed the film (click here for my review), and I absolutely adored The Fighter (click here for my review).  And so it was that I entered into American Hustle with my expectations very high.  Mr. Russell had assembled a phenomenal cast, and the reviews had been near-rapturous.

But I must confess that while I found the film to be extremely well-made, I didn’t find it to be nearly as enjoyable as I had expected.  I thought the film, at two hours and 9 minutes, felt FAR longer to me than the three-hour The Wolf of Wall Street, which I saw only a few days before (click here for my review).

But let’s start with what I felt was good about the film.  The cast is indeed fantastic, and what’s particularly fun is the way almost all of the leads are playing against type.  Visually, all of these actors have changed their looks, and I’m not just talking about the humor of seeing these performers all dolled up in seventies get-up (though indeed the clothes in the film are fantastic).  I’m talking about Christian Bale, who played a super-hero, slouched over with a big gut and an outrageous comb-over.  I’m talking about handsome leading man Bradley Cooper’s jheri curl.  I’m talking about the sexed-up look of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  But more than their physical transformations was how well each and every one of these actors inhabited these characters.

The stand-out is Christian Bale, who absolutely vanishes into the role of con-man Irving Rosenthal.  Mr. Bale is magnetic in the role, drawing us into the scheming mind of this rather pathetic figure.  The physicality of Mr. Bale’s transformation hooks us into the character, but it is Mr. Bale’s gripping charisma that keeps us locked into this man’s story.  Bradley Cooper nails a very different kind of pathetic as the out-of-his-league FBI man, Richard DiMaso.  Mr. Cooper takes us right into the desperate ambition at DiMaso’s heart.  The first woman in Irving Rosenthal’s life who we meet in the film is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams.  The two meet at a party, and each one quickly realizes that they have met a peculiar sort of soul-mate in the other.  Sydney gets involved in Irving’s small-time scams, pretending to be a British aristocrat, thus lending a convincing legitimacy to Irving’s scams.  But after a while following Irving and Sydney’s relationship in the film, we realize that Irving is married to someone else: the boozy housewife Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence, sporting a thick The Real Housewives of New Jersey accent.  I’ve used the word “pathetic” several times in this paragraph, and indeed all four of these characters are broken and pathetic, each in their own way, and the film is an eyewitness account of the catastrophes that arise when these four hustlers collide.

I should also mention Jeremy Renner, who plays Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, NJ, who is trying to bring casinos into New Jersey.  Carmine is willing to bend some rules and grease some palms to make this happen, but interestingly enough the film presents him in a far more positive light than the rest of the main characters.  The film doesn’t give us any cause to doubt Carmine’s statement that all he wants is to find a way to bring new jobs to the people of New Jersey, and one of the central tragedies in the film is the way this man is destroyed once he comes into the circle of the other characters.  Seeing as, from some of what I’ve read, the real-life character on whom Carmine is based was not nearly so noble, it’s interesting that Mr. Russell chose to depict this character so positively.  Jeremy Renner, under a dynamite hairdo, is a hoot in the role.  Like Christian Bale, he too sheds his playing-a-superhero past (in Mr. Renner’s case, he was Hawkeye in The Avengers) to bring to life a very human character.

The film’s opening line of text lets us know (in phenomenal, tongue-in-cheek fashion) that, while events similar to those depicted in the film did indeed happen — Abscam was real — the film is going to play fast and loose with events.  I like the way Mr. Russell acknowledged that right off the bat, so we could all stop worrying about exactly how closely the film hews to the facts and just enjoy the outrageous story being told.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but wonder whether the film wouldn’t have been better served by sticking a little closer to the reality of what really happened.  The Abscam story is a wonderfully rich and complex saga, with plenty of great meat for a film, it seems to me.  The story of American Hustle, though, started to get a little too wacky for me in the second half of the film, with all of those mobsters and double-crosses.

Most problematically, I felt that the second half of the film lost the thread of Irving and Sydney’s relationship.  The movie opens by showing us the story of how they first met and got together, with Irving and Sydney each giving us their point-of-view in alternating bits of narration.  It’s a really clever way to open the film, and it invests us immediately in their story.  But as the film progressed, I felt we sort of lost track of the two characters and what they were feeling about one another, and I think the story suffered for it.  To be clear, I’m not saying it’s bad for there to be points in the story when the characters weren’t sure what they thought about one another.  What I’m saying is that the film didn’t make clear to the audience what they were thinking.  There were times I really wasn’t sure what they thought about one another, if they were questioning what they thought about one another, whether they hated one another or whether there was still some love there.  There were a lot of other interesting characters, but I think in following those other characters I think it was a shame that we sort of lost track of Irving and Sydney’s relationship, which the ending of the film confirms was the major narrative through-line of the story.  And the resolution given to the two characters at the end felt a little out of left field easy, coming after a long stretch of time when I wasn’t quite sure what was or wasn’t going on between them.

I also started to tire, in the film’s second half, of just how dour the story was.  Pretty much everyone in this film is staggeringly unlikable.  I have seen many great films anchored by an unlikable character or characters (just a few that come to mind: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Roger Dodger, American Splendor, Bottle Rocket), but in American Hustle it all became a little too much for me, just a little too sad and unpleasant.  I was hoping that there would be a little more humor in the film, to help liven up the rather tragic goings-on in the story.

On the other hand, I also didn’t feel the film reached the heights of classic American tragedy promised by the title.  Calling the film American Hustle indicates to me that the film is aspiring to make a broader statement about the dark underbelly of the American dream, about the lengths to which people will go to hustle one another in pursuit of money, fame, glory, or whatever they are striving for.  But, for me, this story of the intersecting lives of four broken characters didn’t ever evolve into a grander, more universal tale.  It was just the story of four seriously messed-up individuals.

So, this one was a near-miss for me.  I still have enormous respect for the work of David O. Russell and the cast of this film.  There certainly is plenty to enjoy in the movie (I haven’t even mentioned the small role of Louis C.K. and his character’s “fishing story”), but for me all the elements didn’t quite come together in the way that I had hoped.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone