Review: American Hustle (2014)

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Director: David O. Russell
Screenwriter: David O. Russell & Eric Singer
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston & Michael Peña
Runtime: 138 min. Certificate: 15

The UK posters for American Hustle have the words “film of the year” proudly emblazoned on them which, considering the film came out on January 1st over here, is quite a bold claim. Furthermore, it’s also a claim that – if true – doesn’t bode well for the rest of 2014…

It seems harsh to dismiss American Hustle as “Scorsese-lite” because though it’s quite obviously influenced by films like Goodfellas and Casino, it does have its own, distinct personality. For all of the debts that it owes to other, better stories, American Hustle is most definitely O. Russell’s film; his not insubstantial flair for comic grotesquerie oozes from each of the film’s pores, yet this is exactly the problem; his approach lacks restraint, thus his message becomes lost amidst hollow over-exuberance that does a disservice to the actual point he seems to be making.

American Hustle’s big problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It jumps from dark comic caper to intimate character study and back again, with O. Russell failing to pay enough attention to either thread. As such his film feels like two incomplete parts of one unsuccessful whole. With its 2-hour-plus runtime, it’s a shame that so much of the middle act is wasted on inconsequential moments that are obvious in their metaphor and uninteresting in their insinuation, because they are bookended by moments of sheer anarchic hilarity.

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And therein lays the problem. When the film is good, it’s really good – the first half-an-hour for example, in which we are introduced to this bitter cocktail of odious characters, all of whom are putting on a show, is arresting cinema – yet when it’s bad it’s really bad. The point of the film – that everyone is fake, corrupt and untrustworthy – is expressed in such a way that you have to wonder if O. Russell meant it to be ironic; the fallaciousness of the characters is conveyed in such a heavy-handed way that even though the film deserves plaudits for its humour, one finds it difficult to take the “meat” of the film remotely seriously. O. Russell’s script exudes a falseness that goes much further than its plot; it feels, for lack of a better phrase, like phony storytelling.

Allow me to explain; this is a film that appears to pride itself (though, as the film tells us about a million times, appearances can be deceptive…) on its exploration of the basest instincts of humanity. Everyone in the film is in it for themselves; they’re all liars, cheaters and thieves, and none of them has many redeeming qualities outside of those you might expect from a tale that ultimately demands some redemption from its major players. Yet the characters are caricatures; they’re distinctly unhuman, not just in their actions but also in their traits. Part of the point, in fact, is that they’re all appearance-conscious; hair, make-up and fashion dominate their thoughts and turn them into “different people”. These two threads, at least for me, contradict each other too much to work concomitantly. If the point is to portray humans as frauds then you have to convince me that your characters are actually human, which American Hustle just doesn’t do.

It’s a contradiction that dogs the entire film, which is a particular shame because there is a lot to like about what O. Russell has to offer. The film’s seventies aesthetic is handled brilliantly, not least because it plays out in beautiful harmony with universal themes about politics, corruption and greed that feel fresh and contemporary. The soundtrack, the visuals and the dialogue reek of the sensibilities of post-Watergate America, while the central plot of the film has all the intricacies of classic seventies cinema, albeit with less charm. When O. Russell focuses on the heist element of his film, rather than indulging in a shallow character study, he proves himself capable of telling an interesting and engaging story, and though I don’t think it works as a coherent whole, there are a lot of admirable moments amidst the detritus.

One feels a certain reluctance to write American Hustle off without a second viewing, not least because there is an awful lot going on. O. Russell introduces a lot of plot points and, to his credit, rounds most of them off relatively nicely by the end. I think, however, that he overplays his hand too often; he has a lot he wants to say, yet his style is hectic and sloppy. On the one hand it makes for a highly entertaining watch; irrespective of the film’s numerous issues, I had a lot of fun with it. It’s an amusing film in which, if you’re a fan of anarchic chaos, it is easy to become utterly engrossed. Alas, once you scratch at the surface just a little bit, you find a film that is hollow and devoid of depth.

To conclude on a positive note, the performances are fantastic across the board. The issues I have with the characters rest squarely on the shoulders of O. Russell, not on the people playing them, and were it not for the presence of people like Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence – both of whom steal the show, in my opinion – this already messy film would have sunk further into the mire. When American Hustle is at its most dull, the performances are just about enough to keep the audience entertained. I’m not convinced they’re all award-worthy but they’re all pretty solid, and when they’re on screen together they radiate chemistry. For all of my earlier complaints, I just can’t fault the acting.

Also, it’s nice to see a certain cameo star act like he gives a shit again because I ain’t seen him do that in years…

★★½

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