Sunday, 12 January 2014

American Hustle (2013) - ★★★½

Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Stars: Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K, Robert De Niro

I really liked American Hustle. It has a flare for great music, great style, and great performers. We haven't really seen a film such as this since the peak of Tarantino, yet I can't help but feel that it's not on par with his greatest films, nor is it on par with the films of Scorsese. It falls short because we never truly get to know the characters and form real attachments to them. It's over two hours long, yet it lacked the character development that should have brought heart and soul into the crazy plot. Sure, we see the surface value of these people, and then some... but I left feeling like I still didn't know anyone. There were elements of greatness in American Hustle that deserve credit, but it was lacking the key ingredient that would have made it a masterpiece. In my opinion, it is the most critically overblown movie of 2013.

Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney 'aka Edith' (Amy Adams), are both madly in love hustlers who make a living through stealing from people who have hit rock bottom. When federal agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) arrests Edith for her crimes, he offers them a choice. Either help him catch several corrupt politicians through using their hustling expertise, or go to jail. The plot thickens when mobsters, deception, and scorned romantic relationships enter the fray.

One thing I loved about American Hustle was the way the characters narration and points of view were rotated throughout the film. It started with Bale, then Adams, then Cooper etc. This technique kept the story fresh and gave us a cool look at the character’s personalities and perspectives. Unfortunately, there’s one stylistic choice that David O. Russell made that I just can’t wrap my head around. At the beginning of the film, we see a money-exchanging sequence that occurs about 45 minutes later. Had they not jumbled the timeline to be fancy and artistic, that sequence would have held quite a bit of suspense and unpredictability. Instead, it held very little effect at the beginning of the film, and no effect during its second occurrence. I’ve pointed out this little nit-pick for the purpose of showing how American Hustle isn’t a perfectly crafted film. Russell tried too hard to make it as artsy as possible, which subsequently detracted from the impact later. Less is more, you know?

Amy Adams gave the most substantial, memorable performance out of the cast. She had the hardest part to play, and she surprised me with her adaptability. I personally felt that she could have been a lot better, if given the chance to go into more risky territory. Her role, although abstract by mainstream standards, just felt safe to me. I think in a weaker year, she would deserve to be nominated for an Oscar. However, I can think of five leading performances in 2013 that are greater than what she gave in American Hustle.

“He had this air about him, and he had this confidence that drew me to him. He was who he was. He didn’t care.”
Christian Bale is an actor I’m not too fond of. My favourite performance of his to date was back in 1987, as a war-torn child in Empire of the Sun. Unlike most, I’ve just been underwhelmed by many of his most acclaimed roles, particularly those in The Dark Knight trilogy. But here, in American Hustle, he has turned that all around. This film has tipped the scale, and I officially like Bale as an actor. He turned out a flawless performance. It’s nothing particularly substantial when compared to other great leading performances of 2013, but it was perfect for the film. Kudos to him.

My MVP of American Hustle was Bradley Cooper, who many thought was the weakest of the four leads. I just believed his character, and really got into his fling with Edith. His crazy moments, his sexy moments, his heated moments, and his awesome perm were a huge reason why I really liked the movie. He played off Adams' character superbly. Although he still looked and sounded like Bradley Cooper, he just shined above the rest and really surprised me. 

Jennifer Lawrence. Now that I have your attention! I thought she did a good job! She’s the most overhyped actress today, after having garnered prestigious awards for her great performance in Silver Linings Playbook, and also being a pop-culture icon in The Hunger Games. While I find her die-hard fans ridiculous for saying things like, “oh my God, she needs to win an Oscar for American Hustle,” I must say she did give an effective performance. She was certainly the weakest of the four leads, but she definitely doesn’t deserve the slack she’s been given by bloggers who are sick of her. She was husky, annoying, and most importantly, a convincing floozy wife. That’s all she needed to be, and she played her part well.

Cooper and Adams make a dashing pair.
The only time I felt elated was during the disco-dancing sequence with Adams and Cooper. When they stormed into the bathroom, and talked about “no more fake shit,” I finally felt like I was watching something that is on par with Scorsese and Tarantino. The atmosphere felt electric, and the chemistry between Cooper and Adams was undeniable. That was the highlight of the film for me. I also loved the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” sequence, where Cooper and Adams walked through smoke and into the scene. What an entrance! Let’s be honest, I loved that sequence mostly because Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is one of my all time favourite songs.

The real star of the film is the sensational soundtrack, featuring hits from Tom Jones, David Bowie, The Bee Gees, Elton John, Wings, Chicago, and many more. I also really liked the score by Danny Elfman, who came out of his shell a bit and produced some more noteworthy compositions that may actually be recognized by The Academy Awards. I really liked the visual flare and funky music used throughout. Even though American Hustle is a film that looks and sounds good, it just doesn’t quite live up to those great aspects due to its less than stellar emotional impact.

Has anyone else noticed Louis C.K has had a stellar 2013? First in Blue Jasmine, and now a small part in American Hustle. I wonder if we’ll be seeing more of him? Also, Jeremy Renner gave a flawless performance here too, but his part wasn’t substantial enough to garner much attention. Most importantly, I say fuck yes to the cameo of Robert De Niro! It’s just not a crime-drama without that living legend on screen!

Above all else, this film reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s film, Jackie Brown (1997). It has a very similar plot. In Jackie Brown, the protagonist Jackie must con a ruthless gangster in order to stay out of jail, and also to get tons of cash (she devises her own devious scheme to fool the cops). In American Hustle, two hustlers must con a gangster and a politician to prevent them from being put into jail by the police. Both movies had a heavy 1970s themed soundtrack, and very similar cinematography. The key difference between them is that Jackie Brown developed the characters perfectly, and got me invested in their story and outcomes. American Hustle focuses less on the characters emotions and backstory, and more on the style in which the story unfolds. There’s more substance to Tarantino’s film, something that American Hustle lacked to be called a true masterpiece. It’s been such a long time since a film like this has been released, that people have been praising it as one of the best movies of the last decade. Tarantino and Scorsese’s best work is like drinking the best cup of coffee in the world, whilst David O. Russell’s attempt is more like a cup of joe with a weaker buzz. It’s good, but it doesn’t quite satisfy the craving for another masterful crime-drama. 


  1. Good review Ben. It was a whole bunch of fun that never seemed to stop, which is mostly because the cast is clearly having the time of their lives here. As they should, because they're all very talented, and working with a very talented-director.

    1. Thanks Dan. All the fun for me was in the performances of Adams and Cooper :)