MOVIE REVIEW: American Hustle




During the seemingly long Oscar season each year, studios save some of their best and brightest films for the end of the year so that voters with short memories will remember them most when its time to fill out a ballot for awards nominations.  It's incredibly rare to see a Best Picture Academy Award winner from a month earlier than October.  The term that gets used a great deal is "Oscar bait."  This creates a very flooded market in December of memorable film after memorable film.  These studios pull out all of the marketing stops and want that "Nominated for..." and "Winner of..." sound byte or graphic on their print advertisements, posters, trailers and TV spots.  They long to be showered with praise and are cradled by the powers-that-be to grab that spotlight.  They want you to pay your money and join in that praise, hence the term "Oscar bait."

Each year, though, a few of these Oscar hopefuls miss the mark and just don't work.  They bait you into lackluster results.  The hype was too much and too manufactured.  There might not be much wrong with the film, but they just don't become memorable or worthy, especially when compared to their peers in the flooded year-end.  They feel too dressed up and not authentic.  Last year, Lincoln was a perfect case.  It earned a five-star review from this website.  Not a thing was wrong with its execution, but it was almost completely forgettable outside of Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones.  Two years ago, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close begged to be loved, but it exploited 9/11 as a backdrop for a hack fictional story that felt cheap.  Those two films were classic cases of "Oscar bait."

This year, I have the sneaking suspicion that this year's "Oscar bait" rouse will be American Hustle.  It has all the elements of this trend.  The film has extremely popular and award-winning stars in Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, who combine for two Oscar wins and ten nominations in their careers.  They get to play and look good in a sprawling period setting of costumes, hairstyles, and music.  They are guided by a pedigreed filmmaker in the prolific David O. Russell, who's coming off of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook in the last two years, adding three more Oscar nominations to American Hustle's talent pool.  All of that is well and good, but the movie goes almost nowhere in trying to be either a comedy or a crime saga.  This is 2013's movie that will disappoint instead of inspire.

American Hustle is fictionally and loosely based on the ABSCAM sting operation of the FBI during the late 1970's and 1980's that snared several elected officials guilty and taking bribes and payoffs from criminal elements for personal gain.  The Fighter's Academy Award winner Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time businessman with a con artist schemes on the side and a penchant for Duke Ellington.  Past his dry-cleaning store fronts, he scams people for investments in art and other fraudulent money grabs.  He meets and falls for a new partner-in-crime in fiesty redhead Sydney Prosser (Four-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams).  She sees past the beer gut and comb-over and equally falls for Irving's seductive scheming.  The one bump in their romantic way is that Irving is already married to the unstable stay-at-home-mom Rosalyn (Silver Linings Playbook Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence) and is the adoptive father of her son.

Together, Sydney boosts his business playing a British aristocrat named "Lady Edith Greensly" with an overseas credit line.  The money is flowing until they are pinched in their own game by undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Silver Linings Playbook Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper).  Holding jail time over their heads, Richie twists their arms to be his informants in a sting operation to lure crooked elected officials.  Richie's first target is Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

The highly-respected mayor was an active proponent in the new legalization of gambling in his state and is hoping to invest in Camden and Atlantic City to bring jobs and money to his constituents.  Guided cautiously by his pencil-pushing superior (Louis C.K.), Richie gets Irving and "Edith" an audience with the mayor to establish a possible, albeit fake, financial connection to an Arabian sheikh, played by a Mexican FBI field agent (Michael Pena).  On the side, he and Sydney try to find an exit strategy to the federal web they're stuck in.  In getting deeper into the con, Irving befriends the mayor and respects what he stands for.  He tries to tell Richie that this whole scheme is too big to pull off.  This especially becomes apparent when the real Mafia, embodied by a certain surprise famous mobster actor, comes knocking to get in on the mayor and sheikh's action.

Before I sharpen the "Oscar bait" filet knife, let me just say that the acting on display in American Hustle is immersive and, at times, impressive.  Each member of this solid ensemble gets free reign to dive into their characters and take risks.  The Method-acting Christian Bale dives the deepest to do most of the talking and brilliantly hides behind his character's distinct schlubby look.  Bradley Cooper can play frazzled with the best of them and gets to do so with an over-the-top perm and sweet threads.  As we saw in The Fighter and in other works, it's hard to get Giselle from Enchanted and the love interest of The Muppets  to not look completely sweet all the time, but Amy Adams gets to put on her trampy big-girl pants and play mean with permanent cleavage on display.  Everyone loves Jennifer Lawrence this year and American Hustle will likely extend that parade with her zany performance as the wild card and volatile element of this scheme.

When her Rosalyn and Adams's Sydney characters finally meet as part of the sting's big meeting, you do not want to be a man or another girl in the way or in the middle.  They are scarier than any mobster.  It's a great scene, but an example of the film's overall problem.  Outside of these two ladies starring a hole through each other's souls, none of these characters and very little of this story has any bite.  American Hustle feels like a satire without the jokes.  The film is very long and very talkative without going much of anywhere.  It's not quite Quentin Tarantino-level excessive in that department of aimless Chatty Cathies, but close.

American Hustle is a crime film with, honestly, very little compelling crime or danger.  The whole operation is about catching political payoffs.  Yeah, I know.  Try not to shake in your boots too hard.  There's not much tension involved when the crucial moves are a passed briefcase and a handshake.  This isn't "he brings a knife, you bring a gun" toughness.  Even when the mobster heavy shows up, the danger never gets much higher than a spilled drink.  This is weak, convenient white collar crime.  This is a slap-on-the-wrist crime drama where little is at stake and everyone makes it.  

I love Martin Scorsese movies as much as the next film fan.  His crime movies are the stuff of legend.  American Hustle is dying to be "Scorsese Lite" and it fails.  Russell and the gang nail the look of a good Scorsese film with great camera work and ambiance.  The gaudy period-era fashion, cars, music, hairstyles, makeup, and production design of the late 1970's is flawless and decadently detailed.  The movie completely looks the part to rival the Scorsese legend, but it stops at looks.  The acting is a big perk to save most of this.  American Hustle is supposed to hit like tequila, but comes across more like than carbonated water from your Sodastream Christmas gift or a watered down Shirley Temple.

LESSON #1: DO NOT KEEP TWO WOMEN AROUND AND, WHATEVER YOU DO, DEAR LORD, DON'T LET THEM EVER MEET-- I teased this earlier with the epic passive aggressive clash that brews between Sydney and Rosalyn.  Whatever you do, don't keep a spouse and a mistress.  Don't let each of them know about each other's existence.  Don't tell your unstable spouse about your supposedly undercover work.  Don't lead either woman on about being the love of your life when both are in the picture.  Don't, under any circumstance, let them ever meet, and definitely not publicly while on an undercover sting operation with FBI, politicians, and mobsters in the same room with gambling and alcohol readily available.  Irving Rosenfeld, fictional or not, you are crazy, sir.

LESSON #2: THE DEFINITION OF THE EXPRESSION "FROM THE FEET UP"-- In Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper's character is always talking about "excelsior."  In the classic Coen brothers mob film Miller's Crossing , we see the frequent use of giving someone "the high hat."  The catchphrase/mantra of this wannabe crime movie is "from the feet up."  The expression speaks to be being totally committed to a job or goal.  Irving and Richie preach it all day.  It's pretty much another way of saying "from head to toe," but stresses the foundation and and strong footing by which to root the needed commitment.

LESSON #3: THE POWER OF NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT AND CRAVE-- One paraphrased line from one of Irving's frequent voiceovers talking about his craft says "the more you say no, the more they want what they can't get."  That level of denial is a big key to the cons going on in this film.  Cons target people who are desperate.  Richie obsessively wants to catch high-ranking officials, become an FBI superstar, and also get his piece of Sydney/Edith, but can't have it.  Carmine wants what's best for his people, but can't have it.  Rosalyn wants Irving to stay around, but can't have it.  Irving wants Sydney's unconditional love, but can't have it.  Everyone in this film is getting told an ardent "no" for each of these goals and desires, making the draw that much stronger.