Review: American Hustle

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The working title of American Hustle was American Bullshit, and though that title would have never allowed it entry into the multiplexes, it’s much more apt. Not only is bullshit one of the more frequently used epithets in the film, but the whole concept of that word–that nothing in America is real, and can be manipulated into something else–pervades the story.

Set in the corrupt world of New Jersey politics, with its protagonists a pair of con artists and a slightly askew FBI agent, American Hustle is one of those movies that we used to say lifts the rock on what goes on in America. We’ve said that so often though that I don’t think the rock needs lifting–it’s been permanently lifted.

Here’s the thing–though you want to take a shower after watching it, it has a tremendous amount of heart, and all of the characters, though extremely flawed and not the people you’d want in your house, are sympathetic. Even when at odds with each other, you root for all of them, none more than Irving Rosenfeld, inhabited by Christian Bale. We first see him elaborately preparing his comb-over, with what looks like glue and pubic hair. How can you not love a guy like that?

Co-written and directed by David O. Russell, it shares many actors from his recent films and a common thread–badly damaged people. It’s not as good as The Fighter of the sterling Silver Lining’s Playbook–it’s a little too long and parts of it gave me a headache. But there are moments that make it all worthwhile.

The film starts in media res with Bale, along with his mistress (Amy Adams) being used by FBI agent Bradley Cooper trying to sting the mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner) into taking a bribe to smooth the entry of casinos into Atlantic City. We then see flashbacks, narrated by a variety of characters, the sort of equivalent of a novel having several different narrators. Bale plays a guy who owns a few dry cleaning stores, but makes his money in a loan shark racket that I never fully understood. He meets Adams, an ex-stripper, who takes to the life like a duck to water, even using a phony British accent.

Problem: Bale is married to Jennifer Lawrence, an ancestor of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (the action is set in 1978). She wants Bale, but so does Adams, though Cooper also wants Adams. So we have two love triangles and the highly fictionalized Abscam operation, the real FBI sting that netted a U.S. senator.

Russell obviously watched Goodfellas quite a few times while making this. We have a lot of transitions scored by hits of the era, and even Robert DeNiro shows up as a Mafia don. There are all those narrators, and a sense of overwhelming dread, as Bale grows to like Renner and can’t stand that he’s going to send him to jail. Cooper, his personality as tight as the curls on his head, lives with his mother and tries to undermine his straight-laced boss (Louis C.K.), even going so far as to hit him in the head with a telephone.

At times the pace is just too much, and the whole thing is awash in business. But when it slows down and focuses on character, I liked it. The acting is pretty great. Bale, unrecognizable as the same man who was Batman or in The Fighter, is fantastic, putting on weight and affecting a Bronx accent. Adams, who I like in roles like this (she should just stick with Russell) is very good as a woman who has no other options. Lawrence is another actor who should stick with Russell, as she takes a cliche and turns into a living breathing human being, with vulnerability. Renner is a corrupt politician who only wants to do well by his constituents, and is the character with the most pathos.

Cooper is the weak link, but I think the character is the least-well written. It’s hard to get past the perm.

I was somewhat disappointed with American Hustle, in that it’s not as good as Russell’s recent films, but I still recommend it. I’d actually like to see it again, as I can pick up the plot points I missed.

My grade for American Hustle: B-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

11 responses »

  1. Do you think it’s got a shot in terms of being a Best Picture contender (not just a nomination, as a I think that’s almost a lock).

  2. I don’t think so. Right now 12 Years a Slave is the favorite, but it’s a shaky favorite. I’m just not sure what might be the alternative. Maybe Gravity or Captain Phillips.

  3. I need to see this.
    Dare I say I found Captain Phillips good but nothing that really stood out, I found Gravity astonishing, and there’s no way I would make it through 10 minutes of 12 Years a Slave, but I’m gonna throw out there (based on this review) that Mr. Banks is going to be the one the voters fall back upon, because it looks like it won’t be Wolf of Wall Street. Mr. Banks will be The Artist of this Oscars, yeah?

  4. Re Saving Mr. Banks–I don’t think so. It’s getting tepid reviews, and I don’t think other studios want to reward a movie that is essentially a commercial for Disney.

  5. I thought this was just terrific, rivaling The Bling Ring, 12 Years a Slave, and maybe Inside Llewyn Davis as the best movie of the year. It’s fantastically acted, and it’s a wonderful example of a movie that is both pretty long (I’ve heard complaints that it’s too long), but also could stand being a lot longer. I don’t think I’d have minded if Russell had put another half hour in the film, because it’s so rich in character detail. I could have watched it all day, and I was actually disappointed to realize that it was about to end.

    I also like the way that it takes a critical look at the ethics of all these characters. It’s not so simple-minded to take Renner’s character, for example, so deviously corrupt that we root for him to be taken down, but it doesn’t really shy away from showing the corruption of the world he operates in, either. Or Cooper’s character, who postures as an idealist but again, the film really takes a critical look at not just his motives for acting like he does – it would be easy to paint him as a sanctimonious hypocrite – but what he wants to accomplish in the first place. It really questions, through the Bale character, if it’s a good idea to target the people he’s targeting for the reasons he’s targeting them. It doesn’t take the evils of their corruption for granted, and shows the larger context for that corruption. As a Chicagoan, I’m reminded of the Daley machine, and all that both Daleys were able to accomplish, even though their corruption was assumed even by most of their strongest supporters.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the movie doesn’t just lift the rock on American life. It’s not a muckraking piece and doesn’t have any kind of strident polemical agenda. Rather, I think it takes a good long look at the rock itself. It has a lot of heart, but also a lot of intelligence.

    I think it’s Russell’s best film.

  6. It grabbed me from the very first scene. The acting, the humor, the heart (which surprised the hell out of me). The whole world Russell created here. I would rank it as my favorite of the year as of right now.

    I don’t think I’d have minded if Russell had put another half hour in the film, because it’s so rich in character detail. I could have watched it all day, and I was actually disappointed to realize that it was about to end.

    Yep, I’ve mentioned that I feel very few films should exceed 120 minutes (and most should be no more than 90) but a three hour+ version wouldn’t bother me in the least. I just loved watching these characters.

  7. I love AMERICAN HUSTLE both on its own merits and even accepting it as “Scorsese lite.” It’s incredibly funny, but more than that it presents this morally corrupt world and populates it with interesting, offbeat, and flawed characters that are never less than entertaining.

    The critical tide is against it since WOLF OF WALL STREET started screening, but I expect it will most definitely get nominated for best picture along with SAVING MR. BANKS, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, and GRAVITY.

  8. I’m strongly with Slim on this one. Bale is oscar-worthy but the film is a near copy of Scorsese’s directing style with the close on hands with constantly (and I mean constantly) moving steadicams and music with slo-mo and editing that doesn’t let you fall into a scene and there are a lot of baffling, strange directing and editing decisions that I wasn’t expecting from Russell, as if he was running around the set, standing beside the camera (as he’s known to do) and saying ‘Oh, wait, let’s stand between the clothes as they move!”. (Who does that? Isn’t that dangerous?) But then he redeems himself with the broken spotlight and the characters walking through the smoke, though this movie has the worst overuse/misuse of music since Watchmen, no?
    It has depth, sure, but none of the excitement we’ve come to expect from Russell. It felt more like a ‘forced march’ rather than a ‘fun romp’. 40 minutes in, I was really starting to get restless.
    Lawrence is good, (though her performance feels forced in a way, too) as is Renner (who I’ve come to think was squandering his talent after the amazing work on the ending of Hurt Locker and parts of The Town) but Bale should be holding an Oscar the entire time he’s on camera. Just hold it out there. He’s astonishingly good in his role and it’s the best supporting role I’ve seen this year. I still believe Russell is our greatest director, but this is easily my least favorite of his work.
    Cooper wasn’t necessarily weak, but I just wanted the camera to focus on Bale everytime the camera moves-which is everytime the camera moves….everytime. Every minute. When it’s not on extreme closeup after moving in slowly and then spinning in a circle-

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