Saturday, 18 January 2014

American Hustle

Academy Award Nominations: 10

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (David O. Russell)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
·         Best Actor (Christian Bale)
·         Best Actress (Amy Adams)
·         Best Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper)
·         Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)
·         Best Editing (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten)
·         Best Production Design (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler)
·         Best Costume Design (Michael Wilkinson)

Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser have just met and fallen madly in love. A few problems: They’re working as con artists with Sydney pretending to be a British aristocrat, and Irving’s married and he refuses to leave his adopted son alone with his wife. When they’re finally caught by FBI agent Richie Di Maso, they’re forced to help Di Maso entrap Mayor Polito of Camden, New Jersey with the help of a fake Sheikh. However, as soon as Di Maso gets wind of a bigger target higher up the food chain, the operation grows despite the concerns of Rosenfeld, Prosser and Di Maso’s boss Stoddard Thorsen. The plan continues to escalate until finally they end up meeting Victor Tellagio, a violent Mafia kingpin. Can Irving and Sydney work their way out of an impossible situation? And can they keep Irving’s wife Rosalyn under control?

Does anyone else remember the days when David O. Russell was a director to be feared, rather than adored? He makes tremendous films, but this is the guy who almost got into a fist fight with George Clooney during the making of Three Kings. This is the guy who famously had an explicit verbal argument with Lily Tomlin during the making of I Huckabees. Well, that happened in 2004. He took a 6 year break, and has since come back with 2 absolutely blinding films. 2010 saw the release of The Fighter, with award winning turns from Melissa Leo and Christian Bale. 2012 saw the release of Silver Linings Playbook, with an award winning turn from Jennifer Lawrence which everyone loved (except me apparently). Now, having developed a new reputation as an “actor’s director”, he’s returned after a year, combining the casts of his previous two films in American Hustle, his supposed magnum opus based on the ABSCAM operation of the 70s and 80s. Let me tell you, it is ALL about the crazy hair…

How this film didn’t get nominated for hair and makeup is beyond me, because this film features every kind of wig you could possibly think of. It’s the 1970s, so it is all about the crazy hair and garish outfits, and they more than deliver on that front. Looks aside, American Hustle is all well and good, I’m just not convinced they knew quite what they wanted to achieve with this film. The tone is all over the place; shifting from slapstick to thriller to rom com to drama to PG to rated X at 100 miles an hour, and when you’re sitting through 2 hours of ever-shifting tone and pace, it just becomes a real labour to watch, even though for the most part it is an enjoyable film. Never has the phrase “jack of all trades, master of fuck all” been more appropriate for a film. I think Russell just got a bit overexcited while he was writing it and assembling his cast, because it seems as if the dialogue and the characters were given the majority of his focus and attention, whilst things like coherent plot and consistency were merely an afterthought.

Being an “actor’s director”, David O. Russell is able to elicit a number of great performances from his actors and actresses here. Christian Bale has performed his now-usual trick of losing or gaining weight for a role, this time adding a ton of weight to play Irving Rosenfeld with a Bronx accent. It’s not Bale’s greatest performance, but he makes his fat, balding, con artist someone to feel sorry for which is an achievement in itself. Amy Adams, for most of her time on screen, speaks in an almost flawless British accent. Other than that, she steals most of the limelight and is better in this than she is in The Fighter, and I thought she was fantastic in that. Bradley Cooper is great as Richie Di Maso, playing an FBI agent hungry for a shot and getting in way over his depth, and he has great chemistry with Louis C.K. who plays his boss. Jennifer Lawrence is… Amazing. Her character isn’t on screen nearly enough. But then, if she was, it might be overkill, because her character is an incredibly strong presence on screen and is the most memorable thing in this film. Well…

Lawrence is the most memorable thing in the film except for the uncredited cameo appearance by Robert De Niro as Victor Tellagio, Mafia crime boss. He appears suddenly near the end of the second act, and steals the show. He’s like De Niro of old; terrifying, enthralling, captivating, electric, sinister… It’s a performance he would have put in for Martin Scorsese thirty years ago, but it’s hidden away in a short 10 minute scene without any mentions of him being there before or after. The problem with De Niro’s cameo is that it’s his best performance in years but it’s hidden in a film which is extremely shallow and self-centred. No one cares for anyone else, there’s no thought of depth, and it’s all about the surface and the non-real. Given that the film is centred on an ever escalating scam, it’s hardly surprising that the entire film is a depth-less affair, but it’s a real shame it is because you can see that there’s a lot of potential in here for American Hustle to be a really spectacular film.

Overall, American Hustle ends up being just OK, it’s not anything spectacular, but it’s not terrible. The characters are great to watch, brought to life by 5-6 great performances from its lead and supporting actors and actresses, and the humour is at time laugh out loud. The drama and tension, however, is patchy, drowned out by the overlapping tones. It’s a real mixed bag, and at times, it’s even hard to comprehend who’s meant to be scamming who. Meanwhile, the conclusion is extremely short, sweet and sudden. After two hours of build-up, the film ends so suddenly that you’re left wondering what the hell happened and where your satisfying conclusion went. The film looks great and is well put together for what it is, but what it is is a shambles. A clusterfuck on a grander scale than we've previously seen from David O. Russell. The performances are worth watching, though.

Rating: ***1/2

American Hustle was released on 1st January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.