I’m always a little late to the Oscar party. Sometimes a year, sometimes several, sometimes a decade. With AMERICAN HUSTLE, happily, I am only a couple of months late. So thanks for having me. I know most everyone has gone home. I’ll just munch on the cold, unwanted hors d’oeuvres and finish off the seedy bottom of the sangria bowl. If there’s anything left that hasn’t been said at this party, feel free to stop by my table and have a chat.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley Cooper

I watched AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) on 2.23.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

This is a film with some pedigree. Director David O. Russell in on a hot streak following the Oscar success of his SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Bradley Cooper has successfully bounced between comedy and drama. Jennifer Lawrence may be the hottest (and take that as you will) actress in the last twenty years; her success seems unbound by an impending horizon. Amy Adams is well regarded. Jeremy Renner attacks this with a fervor not usually matched in his career. And, of course, Christian Bale continues his march to take the throne of best actor living today as soon as Daniel Day Lewis decides to pass that torch.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is very loosely based on some FBI case of the late 1970s. A couple of con artists, Irving (Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) are ensnared in a sting by agent Richie (Cooper). The criminals are roped into working with the FBI to go after some bigger fish, namely well-loved mayor Carmine Polito (Renner). Polito is eager to get casinos into New Jersey, and the legal well seems to have run dry. He’s willing to grease the skids a bit, but his heart is always in the right place. Richie doesn’t care about intention, however, he just sees bigger and bigger marks to go after. What starts with the mayor becomes a country wide net with Richie looking to catch Senators, Congressman, mobsters, and anyone else unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. Irving is reluctantly helping Richie, but he really grows to like Polito and regrets his actions more and more as the film progresses. Meanwhile, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) is a beautiful bull in a china shop. She’s screwing things up left and right with no regard for anything. Fortunately, her ability to start a fight is paralleled only by her ability to end one.

This all sounds very plot driven. Russell, however, is much more concerned about character than plot. This is what gets the film away from reality, and it is what ultimately makes the film a near miss. The performances are wonderful. Bale disappears into his role. Lawrence manages to both be her known persona and transcend it, stealing every single scene she appears in. Adams is fine. The juxtaposition of her British fake persona and her ‘real’ New Mexican girl makes her a little more obvious than the others. Cooper plays the unpredictable agent well enough. Renner is almost as good as Bale, really disappearing into the mayoral role in a way that makes him more than his typical film persona. The hair and costume people deserve a good deal of acclaim for creating credibility, but the actors all pull it off.

But, again, this is a film which seems based on plot. Ultimately, the story told cannot deliver on the promises. The first half of the film inflates the metaphoric balloon with air at a rapid pace. Rather than reaching a breaking point and popping at the end, however, someone lets go of the balloon in the third act and it all sort of farts its way to deflation. The story is just not good enough to deliver. And, if this was truly just character driven, that would be fine. But too much is made early on about the way the cons work, and the way the FBI does their job, and the introduction of the different players in the game. Ultimately, the question is: do the characters effect plot, or does the plot effect characters. A strong case could be made for the latter in AMERICAN HUSTLE. That doesn’t make it bad, not by any means, but it does prevent the film from landing with the same authority.

When we are talking about major award season films, often a nitpick sounds like a bash. It should be made clear that this is a really good film. It entertains well enough to breeze by in its two plus hours. The acting is spectacular. The dialogue is smart. All of these things cannot be taken away from AMERICAN HUSTLE. But, with this film, the discussion seems to be in more rarefied air than smaller films. We don’t consider AMERICAN HUSTLE the same way we consider, say, POMPEII or the ROBOCOP remake. If you compare AMERICAN HUSTLE to 95% of the films released in a given year, it beats them all. When you consider the very best films of the year, it seems to be missing a little something.



The bonus point is for the creation of the late 70s world in which AMERICAN HUSTLE takes place. From the costuming, to the hair, to the art direction, to the cars they drive… it all works amazingly well.




~ by johnlink00 on February 24, 2014.

4 Responses to “AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)”

  1. Well said. It is good. It is not great, and thereby doesn’t deserve to lead all films in Oscar nominations. (Though I think it will be very disappointed at the ceremony. The signs seem to point to this winning only one award, for Lawrence.)

  2. John, I find this to be one of your best reviews. I’m glad I didn’t have to waits years to read it.

  3. nice overview. My personal take on this as a nomination as well as Wolf of Wall street, is to draw in viewers for the Awards. Maybe thats cynical but come neither this nor Wall Street should be in the TOP 9 (why is it nine by the way??? Why dont they extend best actor and best actress to nine as well?) of 2013. I couldn’t drink the cool-aid on this one, even though I will readily admit I enjoy all of the actors, their roles and the movie…but Best Picture?

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