A con man, Irving Rosenfeld, along with his seductive British partner, Sydney Prosser, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso. DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.
Year 2, Film #58
THE REVIEW: One of the biggest Oscar contenders this awards season is David O. Russell’s American Hustle. It received 10 nominations for the Academy Awards including ones for Best Picture, Best Director, and four for acting — one in each category. And while the Golden Globes isn’t that big of an indicator for who will win the Oscars (the guild awards are better predictors — and American Hustle is nominated for all of them as well) it did win Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. My prevailing thought coming out of this movie is similar to what I thought coming out of Russell’s last film, Silver Linings Playbook which was also nominated for Best Picture: American Hustle is a good film but there’s nothing about it that warrants all the praise and attention it has been getting.
To many, the most appealing part of the film is the acting. With actors likes Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence — all of whom received nominations — it’s clear that at least some people enjoyed their performances. And so did I. Not only did the cast work great as an ensemble, but they really were able to bring the late 1970s to life. Part of that is just simple costumes, hair & makeup, and production design to make everything look older, but the larger part is the performances that are given. Every actor brings the right amount of crazy and seriousness to the screen to get the story across in an entertaining way. But it’s hard to pick out one performance in particular. As an ensemble is where I think this cast shines (and so does the Screen Actors Guild) and where a lot of critical praise is deserved. Everyone works together to makes scenes funny and entertaining instead of trying to outcompete each other to steal the spotlight. Two great examples of this are: the love triangle between Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), Sydney Prosser/Edith Greensly (Amy Adams), and Agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and then the relationship between DiMaso and his boss Stoddard Thorsen (played brilliantly by Louis C.K.).
As a story, American Hustle also does well at keeping you engaged, wanting to see what happens next. The film is based on true events (“Some of this actually happened” is the title card that appears at the beginning of the film) which always merits points in my book and it focuses on con artists, organized crime, and corruption, also more points in my book. Think of it as an older Ocean’s 11 with a touch of The Godfather or any other mob film. Like Ocean’s 11, American Hustle goes for entertainment through comedy rather than dramatize the serious actions like corruption, bribes, and illegal wire transfers. It works well because of the dynamic between Irving who is a very laid-back, yet organized, criminal mastermind and Agent DiMaso who is extremely ambitious and chomping at the bit to try and make a name for himself no matter what it takes. Seeing DiMaso change plans midway through an operation and how Irving reacts provides many laughs.
My issue with American Hustle is with how it’s being received. Critics are praising this film as one of the year’s best and heaping awards and nominations on it. It may be one of the best films of the year (out of 677 total, I’d say that’s a safe call) but like Silver Linings Playbook last year, had it not received the nominations it did, I don’t feel as if there would be any uproar. And that’s because there isn’t anything special about this film. It’s a solid piece of entertainment that provides laughs, tells a good story, and is great from the technical side (production design, costumes, etc.), but isn’t extraordinarily so. Looking at the other nominees that I’ve seen so far, there’s at least one thing in each of them I can point to as to why they’re deserving of a nomination. Gravity is unlike any other thriller and depicts space in a highly detailed way, Her is one of the most heartfelt films of the year and brings a new perspective to the traditional love story, The Wolf of Wall Street is an epic depiction of life lived in excess and without restraint, and Captain Phillips is so realistic that it feels as though you were on the ship when the pirates came aboard.
There is a bit more to me not liking the film than it just not being “special”. A few of the decisions that were made struck me as a bit odd and also didn’t work particularly well. For one, the narration from all the characters (used partly to voice their inner-thoughts, but also used just for narration purposes) was too overused. Voice over narration should always add something extra to the film, not simply state what you can already see or infer from what’s on screen. And while certain parts (mainly the characters voicing their opinions about everyone else) were amusing, the majority was unnecessary and distracting. Another complaint I have is with the flashback in the beginning part of the film. The film starts out in the present day and then flashes back to provide a little background. Starting with Irving as a child smashing windows to help his father’s glass business might have been a bad choice but at the same time, resolving the flashback at a random time in the middle of the film made it more puzzling than impactful. Why not choose a later operation when things get really heated to serve as the bookends to the flashback and have it occur at the beginning and end rather than beginning and middle?
American Hustle is very entertaining and you should see the film. There are many twists and turns that keep you guessing and, at least in the ending, were totally unexpected and mind-blowing. Comedy is also a big part of the film and it does keep you laughing throughout, especially with smaller scenes and characters. Stoddard Thorsen has his funny recurring bit about an ice fishing story (which does have an ending to it; warning, spoilers) and especially Robert De Niro’s very small, one scene, role as mob boss Victor Tellegio. The four big actors — Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Lawrence — work very well together but with the possible exception of Amy Adams, there isn’t anything special about their individual performances. Combined with the tangible detractors — the use of voice over and the placement of the flashback — to the film as well, I’m left a bit bewildered as to the awards American Hustle has been receiving. Here’s hoping that a bolder and more deserving film like Gravity or Her takes home the top prize.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5