American Hustle

American Hustle 2star“Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, but you had to survive?”

Have you ever seen a movie that seemed so genuinely good, but was in some way a knockoff of somebody else’s work? The guy who made it was so sincere in his methods that the film was original to everybody who saw it. People believe what they want to believe, so who’s the master? The creator or the imitator?

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In early December the New York Film Critics Circle stunned audiences when they awarded director/co-writer David O. Russell’s American Hustle Best Picture and Best Screenplay upturning 12 Years a Slave and the surprise festival favorite Her. Despite the countless positive reviews pouring in (a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes), some critics (myself included) are finding too many parallels with the mob flick Goodfellas with a Boogie Nights vibe. But everyone in Hollywood knows copying is the highest form of flattery especially when it’s done well and done right—I’m talking to you, Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, the American Hustle grand scam of corruption, love, loyalty and elaborate comb-overs doesn’t take us to any new levels. It doesn’t leave me wanting more…it leaves me wanting something period.

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MINOR SPOILERS

American Hustle Quote

Hustle is loosely based on the late 1970s/80s Abscam, a sting operation orchestrated by the FBI that led to the conviction of some congressmen and a senator. The film admits up front with a title card that only “some of this actually happened,” and it’s apparent that O. Russell wasn’t interested in relaying the facts. O. Russell heavily maintains his loyalty toward his characters, and how they all con one another to get what they want, because (as he continuously makes it clear) we all hustle to survive. It’s the American way. But for a plot so heavily revolved around Abscam, the greatest con of the film, O. Russell offers little clarity on following what the hell is going on?

American Hustle

The heart and soul of the movie is carried by Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his con-partner mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Rosenfeld is a sleazeball from the Bronx who, as he puts it, had to work from the feet up to obtain a comfortable lifestyle. Likewise, Prosser too hustled from bottom to top to escape her ho-hum identity. Together they get rich by duping Jersey entrepreneurs with their outrageously calculated business deals. The two become entangled with FBI maverick Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who blackmails them into helping him to entrap local corrupt politicians including New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner).

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell has had a Renaissance of sorts in the past few years with films The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle to add to the trilogy of his Hollywood hits. Russell’s previous work includes obscurities Spanking the Monkey (1994), Three Kings (1999) and I Heart Huckabees (2004); movies that ring a bell to memory, but nobody really talks about them. After taking a six year break from Hollywood, O. Russell helped raise his son with Bipolar Disorder while going through a divorce. The aftermath?  Three films seemingly back-to-back all receiving critical acclaim and multiple nods from the Academy.

American Hustle

“With The Fighter I was at a place where I was ready to know where my heart and mind were going to be invested. And it became those people. I love these people—the details of these people who live in these ways that are very rich. They are always in a predicament at the beginning where they’re at a place they don’t want to be, and they spend the whole movie reckoning how to get through, and if they American Hustle want to get through, if life is worth living and if they cannot only survive but feel a passion for life.  I think if you do it genuinely, from the feet up…see I would never in a million years think of The Fighter as a boxing picture, I would never think of Silver Linings Playbook as a romantic comedy nor would I think of American Hustle as a con picture. Because every picture, I just build it from the characters.” David O. Russell via NYTimes.com

American Hustle Jeremy Renner

O. Russell brands some of the most remarkable characters in his films, but it’s easy to get distracted with American Hustle’s characters by their polyester suits, their carefully-constructed hairstyles and obscenely low cut tops. David Thomson from New Republic highlights that even subtle addition of Robert de Niro in a scene felt out of place, “There is also a harshly underlit actor who resembles Robert De Niro, but a De Niro who has uncommon humor and seems to realize that the whole film is a parody of some of his classics. Does he also notice how, from time to time, Bale drops into a cool and casual impersonation of the younger De Niro?” Unfortunately, behind the grandiose exterior of the American Hustle characters, the interior of the film (and the loosely bound plot) is hollow.

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There’s also a lot of filler scenes in that seem to float in and out serving no structural purpose to enhance the plot, or make it more understandable. Richie’s boss (Louis CK) delivers some of the most unnecessary scenes in the film that don’t add any meat to the core except to somewhat hold Richie back from accomplishing his grand scheme. When Richie doesn’t get what he wants, he slams a retro telephone across CK’s head, which American Hustle would seemingly lead to repercussions, but then nothing really happens. Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) plays Irving’s inept, loose-lipped wife who also wastes some time on screen peddling toward nothing—she blabs to the wrong man about her husband’s crooked involvement with the FBI, but right when you think real trouble is brewing for Irving, the consequences are absent from the plot. A scene that demonstrates the futility of the film is JLaw’s character super-cleaning while jamming out to “Live and Let Die.” Like much of the movie it’s an energetic and sincere glimpse at the character, but ultimately serves no purpose.

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Despite my countless gripes regarding the film, Hustle offers some spectacular performances, particularly by Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper. As much screen time in the trailer and praise from critics Jennifer Lawrence has received (she’s already won best actress by the New York Film Critics circle beating out the tour de force Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave), I can’t seem to grasp the hype. Although Lawrence may only have about 15 minutes of screen time throughout the film, she still remains as captivating and hilarious as ever. But with that being said, this doesn’t come close to touching her performances in Silver Linings or Winter’s Bone.

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I wanted to love American Hustle, and while I fall in the minority with the other displeased critics, there’s no denying that there was a lack of genuine heart that O. Russell’s previous two films possessed. There were no fireworks of emotions that the trailer created, and while it was a fun ride to be on, all it left me with was disappointing conclusions.

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26 Comments

  1. Excellent review. I haven’t seen this, but I read it regardless because I was already aware of most of the spoilers (damn internet). You play great devil’s advocate here. Very balanced review.

    1. Thanks, Andrew! I had to play devil’s advocate, because I love the path David O. Russell has been on, and I want to find the absolute best in his work…but this one just didn’t meet my expectations =\

  2. There’s a lot of points you make here that leave me a little curious, but my big question is this:

    Is it possible that you had lofty expectations for the film and aren’t left wanting by the film itself, but instead by the film you wanted?

    1. Most definitely my expectations were above and beyond; everyone knows I had been dying to see this one since it was in production. I understand the film is supposed to be about the characters and not meant to be a con movie, but it just seems like O. Russell bit off more than he could chew with this plot. Thanks for reading, Ryan!

      1. That’s some honesty right there!

        Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you’re “off” with any of this criticism, I just wonder if the film itself didn’t pull its own level of misdirection – distracting you with what you anticipated while it went about doing its business.

        One thing I liked about the film is something you didn’t – the interplay between Richie and Thorsen. Richie wants to make his bones by putting “bad people” away, but completely lacks the patience to do it properly. The movie even makes fun of it with the way he can never get to the end of Thorsen’s story. Thorsen sees this about Richie, but can’t seem to hold him back and cure him of what NASA calls “Go Fever” (the desire to make something happen even if it isn’t ready).

        Basically, like the crooks he’s fighting to put away, Richie wants the results without being required to play by the rules.

        Kind of a cool touch, no?

      2. I liked those subtleties, and they’re all very apparent, but I guess the plot “twists” and tying the loose ends of the plot in the end just fizzled for me, unlike with a Scorsese piece where the message and twists knock the wind out of you.

  3. I agreed with your review. I was so excited to see this movie and so disappointed when it finished. There was good acting, but what is the point if the story isn’t that entertaining? I may have been expecting too much but for a movie catagorized to be a comedy…there were very few laughs in the theater.

  4. Really nice review! I’ve wanted to see American Hustle for a while but the few clips online left me unexcited. The performances – except for Bradley – seem all over the place. I’d be surprised though if this one didn’t earn Russell all the awards this season, even though Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter (from what I heard) were stronger.

    1. Thanks! I definitely agree that SLP and The Fighter were stronger movies, but this one is still worth a watch. I don’t think it should win best picture at all though nor do I think JLaw should win.

  5. Great review! My friend and I saw this movie yesterday as part of our annual New Years Day ritual of seeing as many movies as we can in one day (moved earlier this year b/c of her pregnancy). Anyhow, the movie was not all that to me. I do like Jennifer Law but I don’t get all the hype. I didn’t last year and I don’t for this movie either. This wasn’t even my favorite J-Law movie of the day. I surprisingly really liked Catching Fire.

    1. I definitely understood the hype with SLP considering her age and the fact that young Hollywood has little to no talent. She’s a breath of fresh air, and while she was good in this, I wouldn’t sing her praises in Hustle.

  6. Oh man, I completely forgot about that “Live and Let Die” scene. That was so unnecessary. I agree with a lot of what you said here. Basically, it all comes down to the performances, many of which were solid throughout. But I wanted to like this one a lot more too. Just never fully grabbed me.

  7. What a shame. I haven’t seen it yet and I’m still looking forward to it but it is interesting reading your concerns about it borrowing from Goodfellas. I suppose saying American Hustle is “Goodfellas meets Boogie Nights” would be ideal promotional fodder for the poster, and I’m not one to disagree, but like you, I don’t enjoy films that feel like repackaged versions of other, usually better, works. Yes, Tarantino has a knack of breaking down those barriers and creating something that actually feels unique but I have yet to see that from O’Russell. So far his films have entertained and moved me; they made me glad I bought the ticket, and I haven’t felt they were anything but original. I’m hoping Hustle will have the same effect.

  8. I really liked Silver Linings Playbook, so I was a bit sad with how much Hustle disappointed me. It wasn’t bad or anything, I just didn’t care for much of it. Thought Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper were pretty bad in it too.

    1. Silver Linings Playbook was my favorite movie last year for cinematic reasons and personal reasons. I found so much more depth in the story that I felt American Hustle lacked. Thanks for reading!

  9. I agree that this one isn’t as moving as The Fighter and Silver Linings. In fact this one feels a bit overrated. Can’t understand why J-Law and Bradley Cooper are nominated for Oscars. Hopefully Russell will make better ones after this. Lovin’ the quote you put there. Very honest and great review.

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