Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: "American Hustle"

Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 128 minutes

About halfway through David O. Russell's American Hustle, I suddenly realized why it all felt so vaguely familiar. Sure, the beginning had a bit of Goodfellas vibe with the tone of its voice-overs and flashbacks, but there was a second ingredient that evaded my grasp. And then it hit me: Ocean's 11. Like Soderbergh's film, Russell's latest feels like an excuse for a bunch of familiar players to get together and make a fun movie with a bunch of heinous, period-appropriate hairdos. Sure, the film is talked about as a possibly big Oscar contender, but it's really more of a laid back heist movie that just happens to have a diamond-studded ensemble. Combine the two aforementioned films and you have a rough approximation of what it's like to watch American Hustle. That is, without any of old-fashioned skill of Scorcese's mafia classic, or the effortless crowd-pleasing of Steven Soderbergh's caper remake. 

A fictionalized take on the FBI's ABSCAM sting operation in the late 70s, American Hustle opens with an attempt at cheekiness: a title card reading, "A lot of this probably happened." The film isn't out to take itself too seriously. Instead, it's content to pack a blandly appealing, toothless sense of humor in a stab at broad accessibility. That said, the title card is hardly an unforgivable sin. That's where the voice over comes in. Covering not one, not two, but three different characters, American Hustle's voice over is some of the most ill-conceived since the opening of The Descendants. The saving grace of the latter film is that after the first 15 minutes, George Clooney shut up. The three-pronged vocal assault here - from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper - may not be constant, but it does pop up across the entire film, which spans a little more than two hours. 

Suffice it to say that the film's first quarter is easily its weakest. There's a lot of ground to cover, with everything from childhoods to personal motivations blasted through, all at the expense of a proper anchoring in the characters. We've got schlubby con man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), his mistress Sydney Prosser (Adams), and Richie DiMaso (Cooper), the FBI agent who eventually manipulates the pair, all competing for our attention, which gets the film off to a jumbled start. Aside from an amusing opening bit with Irving arranging his labyrinthine combover, there's little to latch on to, seeing as so much information is simply being thrown our way.

But while we're on the subject of hair, it's worth noting that American Hustle does have a great deal of fun with with its characters' coiffures. Adams and Jennifer Lawrence (as Irving's alcoholic shut-in of a wife) are largely spared, save for when the former goes to a party with Janice Soprano hair, being the victims of follicular atrocities. The men are less fortunate. In addition to Bale's combover, there's also Cooper's hilariously tiny and tight set of curls, a nice externalizing of his finicky  tightly wound persona, and Jeremy Renner's bouffant, which may possess its own gravitational pull. 

Like some vicious bit of aesthetic justice, the men's looks are made to suffer, even as the women remain dressed up and lightly objectified (every other one of Adams' outfits bares quite a bit of skin). When Sydney compliments Richie on his perm, the moment comes across like a bit of meta commentary. She seems to find it attractive, but when she references the amount of effort he puts into such a 'do, it's difficult not to laugh.

It's the sort of humor that Russell has retained and broadened over the course of his last few films (including The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook). There are dramatic scenes here (the best of which belong to Adams, in wildly different scenarios), but American Hustle isn't out to plumb the depths of its characters and their morally grey world. It's all a bunch of star-powered razzle dazzle that only momentarily catches fire. It's a film caught between giving its actors room to play off of each other, while also trying to keep its plot moving forward, only without the level of detail that might have made for a more compelling narrative. 

So, as fun as it is to see these stars play dress up and spout moderately amusing dialogue, the film as a whole can't help but feel lacking. As a drama, it never has stakes necessary to generate tension (save for one last minute, and very fun, twist). As a caper-comedy, it's too removed from the specifics of its plot to feel like there's much of anything really going on. And, as a character study, it's far too thin. The hairstyles are, frankly, often more fun to pay attention to. And as much as Russell throws in dolly zooms on his actors' faces, American Hustle never truly takes flight the way his last two films did. The closest that American Hustle comes to capturing the fire of The Fighter or Silver Linings is in a brief bit of physical comedy involving Lawrence drunkenly singing along to the Bond theme "Live and Let Die." Unfortunately, like the movie as a whole, the moment is only superficially engaging, and ultimately superfluous, despite its best intentions.

Grade: C+

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