Starring: Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), Amy Adams (The Master), Bradley Cooper (The Hangover), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games)
Director: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Writers: Eric Warren Singer (The International) and David O. Russell
Runtime: 2 hours 18 minutes
Release Date: 13 December (US), 1 January (UK)
One running theme found in several 2013 releases is the theme of excess. Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (which I have yet to see but will soon) both touch on this, as does today’s subject American Hustle. All of these films are also based on true events, all of them follow characters that aren’t exactly the most pleasant of people, and all of them are made by well-established filmmakers with very unique sensibilities. So the question is: does American Hustle rise or fall?
Whilst plot does play a role in American Hustle, I don’t feel like it’s the main priority of the filmmakers. It is a film much more focused on its characters and its themes; the main one of which being the idea of identity. All of the main characters in the picture don’t exactly like who they are and the state of their lives, and through the course of the film they all strive to be someone they are not to either positive and negative consequences. And when the film does let these characters fly and express themselves, this is where the film does shine. Russell is really great at getting performances out of his actors, and that combined with the script and the cast does create some truly wonderful moments. The problem I found though is that, whilst these moments are well done and give some good insight into the nature of these somewhat unhinged people, it does tend to distract from the story. The film’s pacing drags constantly, causing the film’s long runtime to feel really noticeable. The film also seems uncertain who’s our main character and whom we’re supposed to be rooting for. The film utilises narration from multiple characters (something Pain & Gain did to much better effect) and, whilst again providing a good look into these peoples’ psyches, it makes it hard to pin whose story this is. I’m hard pressed to figure out what they could’ve cut to keep things moving because there is some really good stuff in here, but the film could have done with a good trim. It is a prime example of having too much of a good thing and how that eventually damages the quality of a film.
Russell has assembled a mighty fine cast and all of them elevate the film’s caliber. Bale once again proves how much he’s willing to torture his physique in order to inhabit a character, and his portrayal of Irving Rosenfeld stands up as one of his best. Bradley Cooper commits as well, providing a whole different kind of crazy that balances well with Bale. Jeremy Renner’s turn as the sympathetic nice guy caught up in this mess is great, as is Louis C.K.’s role as Cooper’s FBI overseer; anytime him and Cooper share a scene it is golden. But it’s the women of American Hustle that steal the show. Amy Adams’ performance is easily one of her finest, a character who most well defines the film’s fixation on identity crisis. The way she flits between emotions, accents, the men in her life; it all adds up to create probably the most interesting character in the movie. And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence. Do I even need to tell you that she’s awesome? She is somewhat repeating her shtick from Silver Linings Playbook, but with enough of a twist that it remains fresh. Much like Bale, you will find yourself annoyed with her but you’ll want to keep coming back for more.
The film captures that 1970’s aesthetic perfectly, but unlike many other films it never really glorifies the era; quite the opposite in fact. Whilst the production design and costumes all look authentic, they do have a certain grotesque quality to them that I’m pretty certain is intentional. On the plus side of it, the costumes provide plenty of opportunities for Amy Adams side-boob. The cinematography certainly feels authentically 70’s, but Russell continues to use the “zoom quickly on people’s faces” trick from Silver Linings Playbook that I found both distracting then and distracting now; do I need to made the Wayne’s World joke again? The soundtrack to the film is also very enjoyable; a scene where Lawrence sings along to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” is a particularly enjoyable musical moment.
American Hustle has all the trappings of a great movie: it’s got a wonderful cast, a talented director, provoking themes and strong production values. But for some reason this stew doesn’t come together well. It’s a film full of great moments that don’t feel structurally sound together. It feels like Russell got so lost in how fascinating these characters are that he forgot about the story. In many cases, a film can ride off the strength of the characters when the story is weak, but I don’t think the story here is weak but merely underused. The Golden Globes has had trouble figuring out if this was a drama or a comedy, and now I can see why: it’s a bit of a mess when you really think about it. American Hustle is certainly a picture where the whole is certainly worth much less than the sum of its parts.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10