Wednesday, 5 February 2014
American Hustle (2013)
David O. Russell's American Hustle (starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, among others) is only the second film since 1981 to be nominated for all four of the big acting Oscars. The other one was David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook in 2012, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, among others. So it has a lot to live up to.
It's billed as a "crime comedy drama" film with five of the biggest names in starring roles (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence). That's a hell of a lot to have going on in one film. Three genres. Five stars. Two hours.
I'm all for ensemble casts where everything comes together to paint a wide landscape instead of a detailed portrait. It works especially well in crime films, just look at Ocean's Eleven and Inception (which is a heist film, I don't care what anyone says). The sprawling web-like nature of heists and long cons just works when you've got a lot of big personalities bouncing off each other in every scene, but you can take it too far. If Ocean's Eleven is like looking at a nice colourful Picasso, American Hustle's like staring down a harshly lit kaleidoscope while on acid. You know what you're looking at is pretty damn cool, but it's a bit too much and doesn't make all that much sense.
You get the impression that director, writers and producers weren't too proud of the central plot and just heaped more on top to obfuscate this problem. It's solid though: a pair of con artists (Bale and Adams) slip up and get caught by an FBI agent (Cooper) who uses them in an attempt to advance his career by giving them the opportunity to work with him in return for immunity. Of course, Cooper's ambition get them all in over their heads with some really dangerous players and there you go you've got a movie. But then you've got all their family lives, people falling in and out of love with people, except some of them are just pretending to fall in love, and oh yeah that person isn't even who they're pretending to be for about 80% of the movie and you completely forgot that and and and... it's just too much going on and not enough of it's engaging.
There's also an issue with the characters, fundamentally. They aren't likable, not a one of them. Films don't have to have stand up guys centre screen, in fact it's usually boring, but they do have to have something about them. Another Oscar nominated film you could tag as "comedy crime drama" does it perfectly. The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort is a colossal asshole, I'm talking unrivalled levels of scumbaggery, but he's charismatic and fun to watch and it works. Pretty much everyone in American Hustle is just looking out for themselves and does so unremarkably. The only ones who don't look out of place; Louis CK, playing Cooper's FBI handler, is a deer caught in the headlights because he doesn't want to do something incredibly risky while surrounded by people who might as well play russian roulette over their cornflakes.
Where David O. Russell's last project succeeded so where American Hustle flops. In his fantastic Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper's Pat and Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany can be downright vicious to each other, often saying things with enough venom to knock out a horse. But they can be so cruel to each other because it's justified. The tight focus in SLP gives you a glimpse into the downtrodden and broken heads of the pair and it all becomes completely understandable and even sympathetic. American Hustle just has a cast of dicks for no real reason.
Shifting away from the tight focus that made Silver Linings Playbook so fantastic to watch was the fatal mistake for Russell in making American Hustle. The acting is all top notch and the basic bones of the plot are solid, but with all the extras piled on, the film becomes less than the sum of its parts. It's a literal five star film (just look at the poster) that comes out with a three star rating at best.