“Riotously funny and impeccably cast, American Hustle compensates for its flaws with unbridled energy and some of David O. Russell’s most irrepressibly vibrant direction.”
– Rotten Tomatoes 94% on American Hustle
It isn’t too often I completely disagree with the consensus on a film. Perhaps my taste is maturing but I found 90% of American Hustle to be bad. The other 10% had some chuckles and flashes of great performances, but this is far from an enjoyable and good time at the movies. At least with this I have learned to stop putting so much stock into rave reviews, I have nobody to blame for high expectations except myself. I walked in thinking this would be a dark, brisk, screwball comedy played to quick wit by an overqualified cast but the film tried to stretch beyond those comfortable limits.
Initially on the 2010 Blacklist for its screenplay, I imagine the movie emphasized plot over characters moreso before David O. Russell came onboard and rewrote the screenplay and had the actors improvise off the script, but in the 138 minutes spent with these characters it felt very much like a wasted opportunity. There was something great here, either with the initial story being told, or with the actors in the 70’s setting with another plot, but the characters and story get in each other’s way and don’t play well together. It’s either miscast and misdirected or wrongly written, because to me it was nothing more than actors playing dress up and the director showing off.
I found David O. Russell’s improvised style of direction sloppy. I feel the director tried reversing the comic/ drama balance he had with “Silver Linings Playbook” and failed because the tone of the film was too serious compared to the lack of established stakes. The decision was made to focus on characters more than plot but with that in mind the movie lacks focus. The filmmakers decided to focus on developing the outrageous characters so much they neglected developing the central conflict enough to give them anything compelling to talk about other than themselves. It doesn’t sport enough laughs to work as a comedy, and the stakes are never apparent enough to carry a drama. In short the tone is awkward.
It disappoints me that for the amount of work that was invested into these characters throughout the 138 minute running time that they don’t get properly payed off in a way that doesn’t feel either rushed or worth the effort involved (kind of like reading a long review for a disappointing film). The personal drama is stretched a little thin. This is supposed to be a story about one of the biggest frauds in American history, and the narrative drifts to focus on these outrageous characters, but doesn’t make them likable or relatable enough to root for.
Bradley Cooper, who has been improving as an actor with ‘Silver Linings’ & ‘Place Beyond the Pines’ feels slightly out of place here opposite the more serious Christian Bale and he really shouldn’t be. Out of most of the cast he is arguably the most experienced with genre switching and balancing comedy and drama, but for his part he’s annoying and unrealistic as an FBI agent and unintimidating as an antagonist. Considering he gets no direct screen time with previous (and future) co-star Jennifer Lawrence he feels out of place and without chemistry opposite Amy Adams. They belong in different movies and Russell should have left it that way with his last two and gone with an altered cast. Anytime Cooper and Adams were on-screen together in a go-nowhere subplot it wastes screen-time and had me sighing in boredom adding to much of what makes ‘American Hustle’ a slow going and pointless mess.
There are moments that work for these actors in the movie however. Cooper’s scenes with Louis C.K. provide most of the movie’s laughs even if it feels like a different movie. Christian Bale who has shied away from comedy in his career (unless you count American Psycho) plays Irving Rosenfeld straight and has allows his ridiculous attire do the heavy lifting. His serious expressions look positively goofy in his bad 70’s combover and tinted large frame glasses and helps reflect the overt nature of the film keeping things from getting too heavy. The actor who handles their character best is Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito, who brings humility to a small role and deserves a large amount of credit for sporting an engaging on screen relationship with Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld.
Coming in a close second is Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Bale’s wife) acting outside of her age range again with great confidence. She mostly functions as comic relief and is never really made more than two dimensional role but improves as the film goes on somehow is able to go toe-to-toe with Bale, matching his intensity and out acting Amy Adams in the process. This was done so effectively I rooted much more for their dysfunctional Irving and Rosalyn love story over Adams’ Irving & Sydney.
As for Amy Adams, she is given a very complicated role with a character that is at times both confused and confusing, and is very much outside her wheelhouse. Kudos to her for trying something new, but either due to her lack of improvisational skills in regards to the style of film matched against the other actors, the choppy editing that doesn’t consistently flow and likely leaves some of her scenes on the cutting room floor or limits on her overall range, she doesn’t quite pull off the role. You never sympathize with her character or care about her relationship with Irving. Perhaps her and the film as a whole would have worked better if she were the focus and the supporting ensemble balanced her out, but as it was she appeared unlikable, boring, inconsistent, and a major weak point that exposes the film’s major flaws.
Overall this film felt like a missed opportunity as there were elements of great cinema here, that just didn’t quite come together where it mattered, and comes across as one of the biggest disappointments of the year. It was boring, overlong and unfocused with few interesting characters, and many actors that were either miscast or a wasted due to an uneven tone and tons of narrative drift. A heavy build up to a light and quick payoff is attemptedly spun here as off the cuff, improvised and energetic, but instead feels like a bullshit con that should’ve been contained strictly on-screen, rather than by the filmmaking process that surrounds it.
Rating: D/ -2
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- Amy Adams at least looks really good in this film
- There are two Academy Awards and ten nominations shared between the top billed cast; lead actress winner Jen Lawrence was nominated twice, Christian Bale won for supporting, Bradley Cooper has been nominated once, Jeremy Renner twice, and Amy Adams a whopping four times