American Hustle – Con hair
Joining Gravity in the race for critical darling of the year, American Hustle comes served to audiences everywhere with the “best film of the year” tag. But, despite the expectations, it’s a bland been there done that experience, quite unsatisfying. It’s like a meal at that Casino restaurant that serves oysters, even though there isn’t an ocean in sight. The decor is flashy, the waiters are impeccable, and there is entertainment while you eat. Maybe, you even feel a little underdressed, considering all the perceived glamour around you. But when the food comes, it’s merely a pale imitation of the real deal. American Hustle is like that. It uses all american favourites: the crime story, the american dream, the reinvention of self, the period piece, with all the accompanying clothes, hairstyles and music. And, of course, a great cast. On one hand, as a homage to the 70’s, it’s no Boogie Nights. It’s a caricatural and empty film, as opposed to the rich, dazzling, original and exuberant Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece. On the other hand, it’s a misguided and uninspired formulaic crime film, stuck in a narrative and mise-en-scène filled with formalism. It’s has some gangster dressing, sure, even with some heist and caper on the side. All very poorly seasoned. And, on top of all this, it’s got that unbearable odor of made for winning Oscars sauce all over it.
The story follows the main characters of a real-life FBI operation called ABSCAM. The strange story seems like a movie within a movie, a true one, much like last years darling, Argo. The FBI catch a con-man (Bale), who cuts a deal with the arresting agent (Cooper) to catch other con-men by out conning them. There is so much scheming, even the characters are confused sometimes. They end up expanding their operation, entrapping several high profile politicians on corruption charges, by promising millions in investment from a fake Sheik from Abu Dhabi. David O.Russell, director and co-writer of the screenplay, tries to take advantage of the inherited comedic appeal of the true story. However, even the concept of a mexican guy disguised as a Sheik, used as pawn by the FBI to take advantage of either the naiveté or the greed of politicians, isn’t particularly funny. And this was the year of guilt free comedies about white collar crime – see The Wolf of Wall Street. Even blue collar crime got the black comedy treatment in Pain & Gain.
O’Russell, not one to shy away from self-indulging (see I ♥ Huckabees), directs a well behaved and strangely safe pastiche of better films, emulating several Scorsese trademarks, like the slow motion/music compositions, the quick zoom in on the actor, and even some tracking shots. Russell goes all out on trying to seduce the audience, with extended narration that fills the narrative voids, the look at the famous actor with such a strange hairdo and over the top clothing moments, along with the Duke Ellington/Thelonious Monk/Tom Jones/Elton John soundtrack extravaganza. However, without much substance, unlike the aforementioned Boogie Nights, and without the straight up shot of pulp of Scorsese’s classics like Mean Streets, or Goodfellas, American Hustle feels as flat as American Gangster felt some years ago.
The performances, one of the films selling points, aren’t that exciting. Bale and Amy Adams are fine, but the extreme characterization is more parody than method, with the substance lost beneath a toupé, a perm, or the very low cut dresses. Jennifer Lawrence, on a path to Meryl Streep/Judi Dench territory (being nominated for Oscars for showing up on a film), is nominated for every single acting award this year for playing the same character – the neurotic hot mess – she did in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, pretty much the persona she conveys on red carpet appearences and interviews.
The theme of reinvention is a staple of american cinema, framed within the narrative of the American Dream. Hustle is a lesser imitation of better films. Stick to the classics.
Rating 3 out of 10
American Hustle (2013) // Director: David O. Russell // Writer: David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer // Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence // Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren // Music: Danny Elfman
Review by Nuno Sá Montenegro