Dissecting American Hustle

American_Hustle headerAmerican Hustle has a lot of great things going for it, but David O. Russell’s hesitance to just do his own thing keeps the film from reaching its utmost potential.

Zac: Somebody has been watching Goodfellas, and that’s OK, but Russell’s adherence to seemingly make his version of a Scorsese movie makes you wish he would get back to doing his own thing.

Following the true life events of Abscam, the film follows a pair of con artists who get roped into helping out the FBI on a series of white collar crimes that gets them deeper and deeper than they ever imagined.

The film has all the pieces to be something really great. An amazing cast, a crazy true story, and the sort of production/budget behind it most adult dramas dream of. So why doesn’t Russell’s film soar? There are some great moments throughout the picture, which gets significantly stronger as it moves along, but with Russell putting together his Avengers (Russell combines his stars of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and adds Jeremy Renner)  for this thing I was surprised it didn’t click like it feels it should have.

Lauren: Personally, Russell had me at the opening line of “Some of this actually happened,” or whatever the exact wording was.  I can agree that it isn’t my favorite film of his, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it once I got over how fat he made Batman because there was this heightened level of personality to many of these characters that kept me engaged with what was happening, even if the story didn’t hold its end up with keeping me focused.

I guess the big pull for me was Christian Bale’s character and what he goes through as things move further and further out of his control as the situation is exacerbated.  He goes from being a con man that is in constant control to a man who is trying to keep up with Bradley Cooper’s snowballing enthusiasm as he is caught up in trying to make a name for himself as an FBI agent who bites off more than he can chew, and Bale’s reactions to it all are just so amusing.  The only person who throws Bale more for a loop is his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), who is definitely a piece of work.  An always entertaining and delusional piece of work.

Zac: Bale was great, but I think he was the least standout performance for me. That is by design, but everyone around him gets these big moments, which they never waste. Lawrence in particular is fantastic and she really helps the film get going half way through. Her “Live and Let Die” sequence was one of the moments of the year. And I know I just said Bale was the least standout for me, but he gives some amazing looks in this thing as he goes further down the hole. The cast is great all around; they aren’t my issue.

If I had a complaint with the film it is with Russell’s editor and the film never having that snappy pace it thinks it should have. The pacing slacked for me until the big meet up with everyone at the casino night, and while I was entertained I was never swept up. I felt the same way about the music; great songs, but besides the aforementioned moment it rarely fit the scene, even if it fits the setting.

Lauren: Yeah I can see that. While watching there were times where I was noticeably waiting for the story to get to where it was going, which I think just had to do with Cooper’s agent going back for more and more corrupt people to bag and tag. Plus I couldn’t help but be weirded out by his time with Amy Adams in her quest to feel appreciated as one of their heated scenes together at a club ends with her giving birth on the toilet. OK, not really. But that was my response to that scream!

In the end there was just a lot of little stuff for me to appreciate. Lawrence just getting to go for it in her “Hey look I’m dancing crazy!” scene and Bale’s reaction shots (and his De Niro impression) were favorites for me as well, and I couldn’t help but love the choice to have numerous scenes in which we see these characters working on their hair. Bale’s process is especially impressive, but after we see Cooper and Adams in rollers later on I couldn’t help but appreciate these hints at the fallacy of it all. Just a reminder that these people are full of poo, so feel free to constantly question everything that’s happening and the interactions/relationships between the characters while we wait for the actual story to catch up.

Zac: Once the story gets going though, it runs. While Russell risks maybe paying homage to Scorsese too hard with a certain cameo, it works, and the film rolls towards its conclusion. I think the last little twist might play a little too easy, but the performances make it work. The performances pick up most of the film’s slack, actually, and is the main reason why the film is not to be missed, shortcomings and all. And I’m actually overly hard on Russell, possibly, because I love Three Kings and I Heart Hukabees so much. I know what he’s capable of, and this is the best of his last three films, so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard?

Lauren: Well I wouldn’t say best of… I really liked The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Point is: back up off, Zac!

In the end it’s clearly just how well you connect to the characters that matter, and if you are willing to let them overcompensate for any shortcomings you might see elsewhere. Now hustle on out to the theater and decide for yourself while I sit here undeservingly satisfied with this final sentence.

Lauren’s Final Grade: B+     
Zac’s Final Grade: B+