Sunday, December 8, 2013

Not The Movie Of The Year, Incredible Acting Saves The Formulaic American Hustle!

The Good: Incredible acting, Some entertaining one-liners, Effects (costumes, soundtrack)
The Bad: Entirely predictable genre plot, Lack of thematic resonance
The Basics: While American Hustle is entertaining and worth watching, it lacks a sense of enduring greatness beyond the performances to make it a reasonable contender during Oscar Pandering Season.

As we reach the end of the year, films being released are designed to pander to the short memory of the Academy voters. While in recent years there have been a few films nominated for Best Picture that were not released in the post-Thanksgiving Oscar Pandering Season, the majority of films nominated for Best Picture still are released in November and December and this year, perhaps the most obvious attempt to bait Oscar voters is American Hustle. American Hustle has the flash of Oscarbait in its direction, costumes, and sense of humor, backed by the substance of a quintet of performers that the Academy has shown quite a bit of love for in recent years (Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner).

Unfortunately, what American Hustle lacks is a larger sense of theme and characters who make a statement. David O. Russell knows how to make a great film with deeper themes and meaning; he did it with Silver Linings Playbook (reviewed here!), which smartly worked its romantic plot to build to a larger statement on healing and the power love has to trump loss. It might seem ironic or contradictory that I, who openly advocated that Argo (reviewed here!) was worthy of the Best Picture Oscar last year and condemn the obvious frontrunner in Oscar Pandering Season this year for lacking themes. But Argo was more than a plot-based film that illustrated the resiliency of humanity; it became an implicit argument on the strength of pacifism and the power of resolve needed to nonviolently execute a nonviolent plan. American Hustle, however, is a con film. If you’ve seen two or three, you’ve seen pretty much all of them and sadly, despite the enjoyable nature of it, American Hustle does not buck that trend.

Irving Rosenfeld is a conman, so invested in his deceitful plans that his first major deception is to completely alter is face and physique. Disguising himself as a younger, more svelte man, Irving scams his marks successfully. Despite being married to Rosalyn, the transformed Irving discovers he has amazing chemistry with Sydney Prosser. Irving and Sydney work their scams together while having an affair. Their scams bring them to the attention of the ambitious Richie DiMaso, an FBI Agent who is looking to advance quickly by building a record of success by catching bigger fish than Irving and Sydney. To that end, DiMaso uses the pair to run a con on his behalf.

As the casino business explodes in Atlantic City, DiMaso decides to go after corrupt politicians in New Jersey. Starting with the mayor of Camden, Carmen Polito, DiMaso uses Irving and Sydney to go after government officials. As aides to “Sheik Abdullah” (an agent who pretends to be a wealthy investor in Atlantic City construction), Irving and Sydney hook Polito and soon they are using him to get access to corrupt Congressmen and Senators. While DiMaso works to nail the corrupt politicians, he does so outside the guidelines laid down by his boss, which puts his career at risk, a risk amplified by the fact that Irving and Sydney are not simply playing by DiMaso’s rules or solely for his goals.

American Hustle is a showcase of amazing performances – Jeremy Renner stands out for having vastly more opportunities to illustrate depth and substance than he was afforded in The Avengers (reviewed here!) – but the characters are almost entirely unlikable. Renner’s Polito seems instantly corruptible, but Renner is given softer moments (usually opposite Polito’s family members) to quietly and subtly illustrate that he is not monolithic. Polito’s motivations might be presented as the most complicated and empathetic (especially when mobsters begin exerting influence in the scam) and Renner rises to the challenges of giving the character layers.

That said, the rest of the characters in American Hustle (and I reference them as characters because this is a review of the film, not the historical incidents upon which the movie’s events are based) are presented more as archetypes than well-rounded individuals. Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn has a manipulative quality to her that is used in the film largely to keep Irving in line and to sell the practicality of the budding relationship between DiMaso and Sydney. While Sydney and Irving seem to have instant and powerful chemistry, the viewer constantly wonders if the attraction Sydney has for DiMaso is just another scam. Amy Adams plays her attraction for Cooper’s DiMaso with an ambiguity that makes the potential for her character to betray him more obvious than surprising. Christian Bale’s best performances are when his character is at his most vulnerable. When he strides around confidently as a con artist, Bale’s Irving seems painfully familiar for anyone who enjoyed Bale in The Dark Knight Trilogy (reviewed here!). But, when Irving is preparing, when he is shaken, Bale is utterly convincing.

Those moments might be impressive moments of performance, but they are all part of the plot conceits one expects from a con film. In that regard, American Hustle has nothing new to offer viewers. Unlike Argo, where the educated viewer knows the resolution to the film before it begins, but the story is so effective that the viewer invests and is excited by the end, American Hustle fails to suck the viewer in so far. Instead, the rising action builds to the genre conceits the viewer expects as opposed to something surprising. Lacking surprise, American Hustle would have worked if the viewer cared about the characters, but the constant deceptions in the film make it hard to invest. That makes American Hustle worth watching and enjoying, but hardly the best film of the year.

For other works with Jennifer Lawrence, check out my reviews of:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games
X-Men: First Class
Like Crazy


For other film and television reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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