American Hustle, The Not-So-Potent Sting
For a conservative and religious nation with a black and white ethos on good and evil that stringently embraces discipline and morality, it is fascinating how millions of Americans are drawn to movies that romanticize crime and criminals. Historically, average Americans are a very obedient and conformist people, yet many films time and time again encourage us to root for the anti-hero or a morally ambiguous protagonist, capitalizing on our desire to vicariously live dangerously and perhaps to hold on to the myth that we are individualists.
2014 Oscar-nominee American Hustle fits into this mold. At its base, Hustle is a love story between two small-time con artists Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) who unwittingly get swept into high crime by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper).
Hustle, unlike many current films, has a very evocative mise-en-scene wonderfully rendered by costumer Michael Wilkinson, production designer Judy Becker, and an extensive hair and makeup team. They capture the essence of 1970s gaudiness and the naïve, unsophisticated “modernity” that quickly became quaint and laughable. (In one scene Christian Bale’s mustard yellow shirt matched that of the wall in his bedroom.) Also on the plus side is a suspenseful casino sequence (and an uncredited cameo by Robert DeNiro, playing a mobster, duh), and an inspired clever plot twist. This amounts to about ten minutes of the film.
Unfortunately for the audience, there’s another two hours to endure.
As in the case of many “important” Hollywood films, Hustle takes a fairly interesting (if not slight) story and bloats it without enough wit, gravitas, suspense, energy or spontaneity to recompense the overblown treatment. The screenplay, written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, desperately tries to present itself as an intricate, edgy, non-linear narrative. The out-of-order chronology, multiple POV narrations, panning back and forth to scenes, and other cinematic bells and whistles sounds the alarms to the film’s lack of substance and redundancy. Worse, it severs all of the potentially interesting themes, giving the impression of a series of films in progress.
Russell, the current It-man in Hollywood, is regarded as a creative genius whose work also appeals to the masses. His last three films (including Hustle) have reaped oodles of Oscar-nominations. After watching Hustle, I am totally flabbergasted as to why.
Widely known as a method director (which reportedly makes him a demented nightmare to work with), Russell is reputed as being immersed in his craft. However, I think this approach might be the root of the film’s problematically fractured core. The Method can help create masterful performances (though it can just as easily make for unwatchable self-indulgent performances), but unlike an actor, it does not serve a director to micromanage, as they are (or should be) the person that brings unity to a whole bunch of people’s creativity to make a cohesive final product. Hitchcock, who paid painstaking attention to every square millimeter of the frame but had the whole story in his head, is probably the closest thing to a perfect director.
I found Russell’s direction to be quite sloppy. Certain elements, such as the film’s attempts at broad comedy, as in the scene where Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent busts the wrong room or basically any scene with Jennifer Lawrence, consistently misfire. The quality of performances he gets from his actors varies considerably.
Christian Bale, who is often an intense and broody actor, gives a nicely measured unflashy performance in the lead role of a small-time con artist over his head that shines through the over-the-top comb over toupee and pot belly. Bale also imparts a great deal of vulnerability, which could have been great had the story not been so muddied.
The other great performance came from Bradley Cooper as the egomaniacal, unhinged FBI agent. In what could have easily been a cartoonish performance (like when the character is in curlers), Cooper extrapolates the flawed and complicated side of his character and most effectively elicited my investment.
Amy Adams, an actor for whom I’ve had a long distaste, has reached new heights of unwatchability. In what is supposed to be a bold departure from the drab long-suffering wife and girl-next-door types she usually plays, Adams gives an incredibly self-conscious look-at-me-I’m-totally-against-type performance. Still equipped with her grating sing-song Disney princess voice and mousy presence, Adams is incredulous as somebody who came from the lowest rungs of society to become a vixenish femme-fatale who has two men under her spell. Having her tits hang out in every costume made her look even more ridiculously out of place.
Jeremy Renner as a benignly corrupt mayor gives an incomplete performance, although it is not his own fault as the script doesn’t provide the necessary framework to give him the sympathetic or tragic qualities that he needs to make his screen chemistry with Bale’s character palpable. Pretty much all he’s left with is an Elvis wig on top of his head.
Worst in show is definitely Jennifer Lawrence, totally miscast as Bale’s manipulative and psychologically damaged rescue wife. It’s a performance that entirely feels like playacting as her baby fat apple cheeks don’t fit the beaten down slobby housewife character description. With a hammy New Yawk accent that continually comes and goes, Lawrence has an ingratiating stilted delivery of lines that sound like they should come out the mouth of a middle-aged Yiddish woman (perhaps somebody who looks like Edith Bunker). The Jennifer Lawrence that fans love is the unpretentious spontaneous persona she effortlessly dons in public appearances; so why not cast her in roles that capitalize on that rather than have her play characters that should be done by actresses ten years older.
Out of the large supporting cast, only Louis C.K., who gives an appropriately low-key performance as Cooper’s sensible and exasperated boss, has enough latitude to make an impression.
I can take comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who didn’t jump on the Hustle bandwagon. Peter Debruge, critic for Variety, an industry trade paper that usually produces populist non-confrontational reviews, wrote the first negative contrarian notice on the film. Though it popped up in (too) many categories at the Academy Awards, the silver lining is that it lost all ten of its bids.