American Hustle

American Hustle, tadalafil director David O. Russell’s tale of con artists and corruption in the disco era, has a first-class cast, gorgeous production values and directorial ambition to burn. Since its premiere earlier this month, it’s attracted favorable critical attention, increasing awards buzz and healthy returns at the box office.

If it only had a brain.

Russell scored a knockout last year with Silver Linings Playbook, a quirky romance that artfully skated the tricky area between importance and triviality, thanks in large part to a talented collection of actors unafraid to embrace the script’s whimsically mannered characterizations. With American Hustle he’s attempting the same trick, but this time he’s missed the mark. Though the new film’s actors have characters to play that are at least equally vivid, there’s just nothing of importance to the film they inhabit.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as a pair of swindlers who are pressured by an overeager FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) into conducting an ambitious sting loosely based on the real-life Abscam operation of the late ‘70s. Originally aimed at entrapping politicians into being caught taking bribes, the scheme becomes increasingly complex and dangerous as murderous underworld figures are drawn into the con. It’s a classic noir set-up, with our grifting protagonists trapped between the law and the mob…but Russell is too busy straining for cheap laughs and creating flashy set pieces to make us care about what happens next.

In retrospect, there’s a strong enough structure to it all, but, curiously, while it’s unspooling it seems to be a disjointed mess. So much attention is directed to the garish period costumes, hairstyles and what comes to feel like a relentless parade of songs from the ‘70s and earlier, that the story seems constantly pushed to the background and its characters rendered inconsequential.

It doesn’t help that Bale’s and Adams’ characters have been written in a minor key; they’re professional con artists, but they’re strictly petty crooks pulling off tacky crimes – and Bale’s performance in particular is so understated and colorless that he brings little of his usual charisma to any of his scenes. Adams is given little more to work with, but she does manage to add a hint of mystery to her underwritten character. Of all the other main cast members, only Jeremy Renner as the New Jersey mayor who’s the target of the federal sting delivers a recognizably human and relatable performance. Everyone else is a caricature of one kind or another, talented actors trapped in a series of scenes with little more art or depth than a Saturday Night Live sketch.

It would be easier to simply shrug and accept the film as a lavishly produced misfire if it weren’t so full of itself. It’s hard to escape the sense that Russell is bending over backwards to out-Scorcese Scorcese, trying hard to channel the look and ambience of works like Casino and Goodfellas…a comparison that proves not only unflattering but quickly annoying. In a movie so shallow that it draws its biggest laughs from two separate moments of poking fun at its leading mens’ hair, there’s little room for such pretension.

In recent years, the loudmouth New Jerseyite has replaced the Southern redneck as the stock comic stereotype du jour, and Russell’s film is filled with them. Of all the cast members, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s loose-cannon wife most successfully makes the characterization work, though it’s at the cost of transforming herself into a cartoon character. Everyone else seems to fall short of the mark; the self-conscious dialogue falls so uncomfortably from their lips that they seem less Scorcese-like – or even Russell-like – than  members of a road show production of Guys and Dolls.

Like many films about con artists, there are occasional moments here with little twists intended to make the audience wonder how they couldn’t have seen it coming. Your mileage may vary as to how successful those are, but don’t expect anything as clever as such gold-standard examples as The Sting or The Grifters. The biggest con pulled off by American Hustle is the one it’s pulling on anyone who buys a ticket expecting anything special, let alone anything they haven’t seen done better before.

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December 28, 2013 · Posted in Uncategorized  
    

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