[Review] - American Hustle

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
It is easy to get distracted by all the tent poles and blockbusters and endless franchises out there. It's equally easy to get depressed and cynical about the state of the modern film industry when the stream of sludge seems endless. So, it's heartening when an unqualified success comes along, devoid of any of the trapping of a modern "certified hit," that hearkens back so vividly of great films of the past and reminds the viewer that there is still the potential for great films.

They have been few and far between this year (The World's End and Gravity are the only two that received wide release that come to mind), but American Hustle quite nicely caps off the year. Despite being heavily laden with bankable names, it never feels like awards bait, as so many can this time of year, nor does it ever feel disingenuous. It is itself, one hundred percent, and like anyone will tell you, confidence gets you everything.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that know not to put metal in the "science oven."

David O. Russell has pulled off a true feat here, creating a film that is comparable in my estimation only to Scorsese's Good Fellas. It is clear that Russell was heavily influenced by Scorsese and that era of film making, not just to generate the aesthetic feel of his picture, but in his methods. His obvious allowances to the cast that give the film that old school, genuine quality. In his lingering, patient shots that allow a scene to play out despite the silences that might be erupting, where other directors would be tempted (or instructed) to edit them out. And in his blistering, eclectic and informing soundtrack selections, which are many, and never intrusive (though they alternate between diegetic and not). Perhaps his greatest triumph is allowing the story to sink into the background, and allowing the characters to carry the majority of the weight of the two hour plus film. It's not that there isn't a story. The story informs the characters actions. If there weren't any story, these would just be a bunch of desperate, sad, shouty people without nothing to be desperate, sad or shouty about. But the story moves as the characters move, never forcing them from plot point to lot point as most studios insist movies do. Instead, the characters are the focus so that, at a certain point, they become the story rather than some job.

And because of that, the easiest way for me to proceed with this review is to simply look at each character in turn, stating with Christian Bale's Irving. Irving, the central figure in the entire scheme that unfolds (and it unfolds fast, smashing through years of back story in brief moments to get to the goods) is by far the most interesting character in the film. He's certainly the most conflicted, and in a world that, as he puts it, is "only grey" he's the one that leans closest to white. He's a con, yes, but he's small time. And he's fiercely loyal to everyone he loves. It's remarkable that, in a film about corruption, the con man is the least selfish character of the bunch. Everything he does, every action he takes, is to protect either his son or his girlfriend (Amy Adams), and later one his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and his new friend (Jeremy Renner). He does act out of self preservation, but it's always in relation to how someone else will be saved in the same action. Bale, well known for his willingness to transform for each role, has done so once again. And while his performance is on par with his usual output (and honestly, I've never been won over by him myself, even as Batman), it cannot be denied that he produces results when called upon.

Bradley Cooper as FBI agent Richie DiMaso is probably the least developed character of the bunch. He learn the most about him, save Irving, but we never really get to know him beyond being a man desperate for recognition, driven by his ambition, and blind to everything else. He has a fiance, whom we meet only in passing, and never really get a handle on why he is so apathetic towards her other than a fleeting reference about not wanting to settle. His actions are emotional and haphazard, and while it is an easy thing to say that ambition keeps pushing him forward, you struggle to see how ambition alone might drive a man to beat his boss with a telephone. There is something more here that we simply never learn, maybe it was left on the floor, maybe it was intentionally left out. But it keeps the character from ever fully coming into focus. Cooper though, is on fire. He has firmly established himself as an actor of quality now (this film also marks his... third cooperation with Robert DeNiro, which if we're drawing parallels, can be seen as something of passing a torch), and the ferocity he brings to the role, literally raging and grunting his way through scenes, is impressive.

Jennifer Lawrence is the one place where the casting falls down. She too has established herself as an actor of note, and returning to the director who was responsible for netting her an Oscar was smart. Except, there isn't a role for her here. As Irving's incredibly naive wife Rosalyn, she is the closest thing the film has to comedic relief (which, it should be said, this is a very funny picture in and of itself), and plays the role admirably and with everything she can muster. But she's too young. She holds her own with the rest of them, which is only a good thing, but her obvious youth when compared to the rest of the cast is distracting. In Silver Linings Playbook, it was a boon to the role. Here, it is the opposite. The implication in the character is that she is someone who lets life pass her by, but Lawrence just doesn't look old enough for that to be convincing, for that to have had such a crushing effect on her soul. Her youth is never mentioned, not once, which suggests to me that it wasn't necessary for the role Russell cast her for her talent, which again is a good thing. But he let her talent cloud his judgement on her overall effectiveness in the role.

People have been touting Jeremy Renner for a few years now, and I've never been convinced. In the past, in roles in the Bourne Legacy and the Avengers, I've found him stilted and wanting. Here, as Mayor Carmine Polito, I can see what people were so excited about. He has room to play here, to show off occasionally. His break down scene towards the end, when Irving comes clean to him about what has happened, is especially well played (and I loved his pairing with Elisabeth Rohm, whom despite playing his wife and sharing nearly every scene with him, rarely actually interact with each other). In Polito, you get the one really good guy of the bunch, and the audience is meant to feel for him. Renner plays the role completely straight, as a guy who loves too much, who is forced to try too hard to accomplish what he wants. Unlike everyone else in the film, save again Irving, Polito isn't in it for himself, he's in it for everyone but himself. He's successful because he puts others ahead. He does the little wrong he has to in order to make other people's lives better. And that makes him tragic, far more than anyone else.

The stand out though, the true victory, the wild fire success of the film, is Amy Adams as "Edith." Adams is... just outstanding. I was blown away by her raw nerve, razor's edge performance. Every time she was on the screen, exuding either feline sexuality or crippling emotional fury, it was exhilarating. This is a performance that will be remembered for years, one of those roles and actors that fit perfectly with each other. This is Pacino in Godfather, this is Streep in Sophie's Choice. This is a kingmaker performance. No one else could have played Edith this way, and no one else should have. It helps that Edith is the only one through the entire picture that knows exactly what she wants, and how she's going to get it. Like Polito, she's single minded in her determination, but unlike the Mayor, or Irving, she's completely selfish. She craves survival at all costs. If that means she gets to be happy, that's fine, but equally if she has to throw everyone else into traffic you know she'd do that too. While the film holds itself together, if everything else fell apart but Adams was still in the role, the movie still would have been worth seeing.

That leaves the supporting cast, and any good director knows that your film is only going to be as good as the character that support it. You can't just fill in the gaps with faces, there needs to be energy and there needs to be talent there. Extras can be characters, but characters need to be people, and Russell has a great supporting team here. Robert DeNiro puts in a better performance in his one scene then he's done in his last three pictures, which probably says more this scene than those pictures. As mentioned above, Elisabeth Rohm was a surprise as Polito's wife, which wasn't a role that called for much more than to be there, but she found a little extra along the way. Jack Huston was the one natural fit beside Lawrence, as a smitten mobster in again a smaller role that was there mostly because it was needed, not because it was demanded. Russell, clearly aware of the concept that comedians can make fantastic actors because comedy is the hard one (which is really where Bradley Cooper comes from originally), he cast Michael Peña as the Sheikh, and in the best performance outside of Adams, Louis CK as Cooper's FBI supervisor. CK brought so much of that nebbish vibe to a thankless character, more than redeemed by CK's outstandingly understated performance. And dammit if I don't want to know how the damned fishing story ended.

If you go into Hustle thinking you're in for an Ocean's Eleven, Leverage style heist film, you're in for a massive disappointment. Those were entertainment. This is the next step up. And proof that film can aspire to be both high on the artistic merit and be hugely entertaining, without being excessively depressing. This isn't a film that subscribes to the notion that everything is darkest before the dawn, this is a movie that pulls the curtains back and lets the light shine in. For a movie about treachery and underhandedness, it's a very bright, very energetic, very optimistic film. And a surprisingly bloodless one. By my count, all of one person dies, and it's in a flashback. Yes, there are tears. Yes, there is a bit of misery. But things work out for those that work at it, and don't take the easy way, which is as simple a message about how life works as I've seen on film in a while.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. The whole cast is pure dynamite here and absolutely have a ball with this material. Therefore, it made the movie so much better. Nice review.