I didn’t enjoy this movie.
I’ll preface what I’m about to say by making sure it’s known that I didn’t think it was a bad film–there was nothing laughable about it, the acting was solid and the writing got us from point A to point B in a well-executed script. However, it was also dull, lacked complexity in its characters and was more flash and color than actual substance.
If you want a Martin Scorsese film without the subtlety or nuance that he so expertly captures, American Hustle is for you.
This wouldn’t be a problem in any other year–it would have been a lock in some of the past Oscar races that have seemed to use more and more filler movies as active participants–but in a year that has had one of the strongest selection of films since 2007, it’s all the more unremarkable. This is a year where consistently it seems that each and every week is turning out a new film that is just blowing people away, and when I went into the theater for director David O. Russell’s newest flick, despite not being entirely excited, I was assured that I would be proven wrong and shown yet another strong output from the director.
I wasn’t; it didn’t meet my expectations.
There’s a reason why this film seems to be missing in a lot of critics’ top ten lists of the year: it’s a perfectly respectable film, tidy and fun with good usage of comedy and drama, but nevertheless, it’s a starkly shallow film. There’s no soul, there’s no emotion, there’s zero connection to any of the characters: we’re watching actors do extraordinary things with the words and direction they were given, but I’m not caring for the characters they’re playing but the performances they’re giving.
But I digress, let’s back it up for a moment.
American Hustle tells the story of con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who along with his seductive partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), is blackmailed into working with the manic and unpredictable FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Together, pushed by DiMaso’s power hungry hand, they’re forced into a criminal underbelly with mafia threats and a powerful pull ready to drag them to a place where there are no wins in sight. With the introduction of Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and the unpredictability of Irving’s neglected wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), they could find themselves in a situation where their charade ends in shambles.
See, it sounds interesting, and on paper, it’s hard to decipher exactly where it could have gone wrong. Russell has been on a hot streak as of late with his last two movies The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook both being Oscar contenders and winning statues for Bale and Lawrence respectively and with his lesser known film I Heart Huckabees being a critical favorite. He has a stellar cast, all of whom are either Oscar nominees or Oscar winners, and it’s a period piece that opens up with stylistic choices and atmospheric edge.
He has the style and performances in spades. It’s the story that’s so woefully lacking.
It’s great to have a script come along that makes you think; however, it’s even nicer to have one that has us think and also has an ease to its transitions, refusing to play with clunky tonal changes and allow all of their characters to have an emotional journey of some sort that has them going on a typical story arc through the duration of the narrative.
Bale’s Irving is the only character we see transition from anyone different than he was at the start of the film. Bale is fantastic as the out of shape con man who always worked on the lesser scale of crime, choosing to keep it simple and safe rather than search for power. Bale is funny; he’s thoughtful and like all of Bale’s characters, he does the masterful act of allowing us to read the emotions on his face rather than him having to spell them out for them.
The female characters will draw the strongest reactions from audiences. Adams is playing the tricker role of having to play a character masquerading as another character and make both of them watchable and complex, and for the most part, she does. But lined up next to her performances in the past few years, it doesn’t quite measure up. There’s one scene where her vulnerability is fully on display before she grabs hold of the control and completely recharges the character with a vigor that would have been nice to see for the entirety of the film.
Lawrence will likely be a favorite of many, getting to play the more comedic Rosalyn. She sells the character with effortless charisma. Renner is in a similar boat, getting to play the hugely charming Carmine with aplomb and enthusiasm but would have benefited from a great amount of screen time.
The real performance in the film however is Cooper as Agent DiMaso, who is a hard character to swallow due to how unlikable he is. He isn’t pleasant, he isn’t a nice guy, and he isn’t even an anti-hero type. He’s a man who bit off more than he could chew, who is egotistical but hugely insecure and whose anger and impatience gets him trouble on more than one occasion. Despite this, Cooper gives his all in the performance being the only actor who fully seeps into the character he’s playing. With this and The Place Beyond the Pines both coming out this year and with him being highlights in both, he’s slowly turning into one of the more interesting A-list actors out there.
Russell is well loved in the industry because he caters to his performers, giving them larger than life characters to play and meaty dialogue and scenes to chew on, and it works. However, you can’t sacrifice a good narrative for characters, nor can you sacrifice characters for an interesting frame to place them in. We need the whole picture, all of the pieces have to be there or else you walk away knowing that the film–no matter how well painted and put together–was in the end missing a vital piece, and you can’t figure out just what.
American Hustle is in theaters December 13th.