FILM REVIEW: American Hustle

American Hustle (David O’Russell, 2013)

Are great performances and interesting characters all you need to make a good film? This is the question I grappled with. I feel like something was missing from this film, but I am still yet to figure out what that was. The acting was top-notch (one of the few years where a film has nominees in all four acting categories of the Oscars) and the characters were certainly enthralling. I also enjoyed the groovy 70s soundtrack which included classics like ‘Live and Let Die’, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, and ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ and found myself bopping along. It was also pretty funny and the costumes were good. So what (if anything) was missing??? I feel like this is a mystery I’ll never crack.

Amy Adams plays Bernadette Peters

American Hustle is loosely based on the events of ABSCAM, a sting operation during the late 70s to early 80s, whereby convicted con artist, Melvin Weinstein, assisted in an investigation into political corruption. The film begins by telling us that “Some of this actually happened”, suggesting they have taken many liberties with the story. Names have been changed and it is likely that much of the plot differs from true events. That’s all I’ll tell you about the plot as that’s all you really need to know – and I don’t fully comprehend how the sting worked (shhh).
American Hustle - BCoop celebratesThere’s no denying that David O’Russell has assembled a fantastic cast. Merging actors from his two previous films The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), we end up with the star-studded, crazy-good, insanely amazing, phenomenal ensemble of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper. Add a star turn from Jeremy Renner who I actually can’t believe is the same guy who awkwardly presented at the SAG Awards the other week, and Louis CK being awesome as always. But for the four major players of this movie, I think I owe them some fangirling, so here goes:
Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley CooperChristian Bale’s physical transformations ALONE are impressive enough when you look at his film work. I can’t believe the extremes he puts his body through: from buff and ripped in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) to scrawny and emaciated in The Fighter, back to ripped for The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) and then gaining 40lb and a big gut for American Hustle. Anyone who says that acting is easy is insulting this man. That’s gotta be hella dangerous. And HARD. And I haven’t even mentioned his over-whelming acting talent. His performance in The Fighter is one of the best I’ve seen in my life, and he consistently delivers in these performances where it’s hard to even comprehend that it’s the same person each time. The same goes for American Hustle. I said to myself multiple times while watching: I cannot believe this is Batman. And he’s apparently the LEAST likely to win the Best Actor category at the Oscars next month. THAT’S how great acting has been this year.
american hustle - baleI have long been a fan of Amy Adams ever since I first saw her in the brilliant black comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous (Michael Patrick Jann, 1999), followed by the terrible Cruel Intentions 2 (Roger Kumble, 2000). She has worked her way up to A-list and deserves it. She plays the vulnerable yet manipulative Sydney well here, and is deserving of all her accolades. Her fake English accent isn’t great and has been criticised, but given that her American character is faking it, that may have even been the point. It’s really Sydney who doesn’t do a great English accent, not Amy. It’s the scenes in which Sydney is herself, however, where Amy really shines.
American Hustle - Amy AdamsJennifer Lawrence: do I even need to tell you? She’s the most popular woman in the world right now for a reason. Actually, many reasons. But personality aside, this woman can ACT! And yes she’s technically a bit too young to be playing this character, but who the hell cares? She could play Batman and be the right choice. She IS the new Meryl Streep pretty much. Big call. Big, but fair. She manages to be mesmerising every moment she is on screen in American Hustle, and manages to evoke some pity and even respect for a pretty unlikeable character.
American Hustle - J Law cleansB-Coop. THIS. GUY. IS. AMAZING! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can’t believe this is the same guy who went from your average romantic/bromantic comedy to just crazily incredible performances in Silver Linings Playbook, The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012) and now this. Drama, comedy, whatever. He nails it. Cracked me right up with some dead-pan moments in what were otherwise very emotionally-charged scenes. WHAT IS GOING ON? I can’t even deal.
American-Hustle-Bradley-CooperOkay, squealing and hyperventilating over. Let’s talk about the characters. They were all clearly flawed, and yet all had such brilliant qualities at the same time. Irving (Bale) is a con artist (with a very bad hairpiece) who screws over many people, yet he genuinely cares about the people he gets close to, and experiences genuine guilt in at least some of his schemes. He is also very good at what he does. His lover, Sydney (Adams) is a brilliant manipulator, and a woman who has worked her way up the business chain despite humble beginnings. Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence) is wreckless, manipulative, and seemingly a bit stupid in some regards, however, in other ways she is incredibly intelligent and holds a great degree of power. FBI agent, Richie (Cooper) has good intentions based on a strong desire to bring down who he views as the bad guys. However, he is somewhat selfish and one-eyed in his pursuits. He consistently takes big risks because he is never satisfied with his initial achievements and always strives for more. Is this a strength or a weakness? Hard to say. The richness of the characters cannot be adequately expressed here and whole essays could be written about them.

Amy Adams plays Bernadette Peters
Amy Adams plays Bernadette Peters

So again we come to the question: what was missing? Is it just that the actual story didn’t overly interest me? Maybe. I’m fairly ignorant when it comes to political corruption and exactly how hustles and sting operations work, and I don’t think this film helped my understanding. That’s either because it wasn’t overly easy to follow, or I just wasn’t interested enough to bother to try to. I think I also had very high expectations given all the Oscar buzz. The film has definitely produced mixed reactions – some have said it is very overrated. Personally I think it deserves all its acting accolades, but do great actors and great characters a great movie make? You be the judge.

3.5 stars

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