Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Hustle: A Solid Piece of Cinema

Hello! I have a new review for you today. This time, it's David O. Russell's American Hustle. For those of you who follow this blog with any regularity you'll know that the real reason I saw this film was because of Jennifer Lawrence's supporting role. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the film was an incredible platform for all of the actors in this star-studded cast. 

American Hustle feels like cinema. It is not big explosions or body counts larger than a small midwest town. In fact, it's mostly talking, a lot of talking. While Lawrence was the big draw for me, I was also attracted to Russell's second big screen hit in the past two years and I had to see how using essentially the same cast of characters in a new film would play out. Silver Linings Playbook was a genuinely well crafted film that enjoyed quite a bit of success and I was eager to see what Russell was going to come up with next.

It should be said that I love films from the 1970's. Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, and films like Klute, Chinatown and A Woman Under the Influence, are all such incredible expressions of an under appreciated era in American film culture. The 70's are distinct far beyond disco, the dark, gritty crime dramas influenced heavily by the Vietnam war, Civil Rights, Watergate and the Kennedy Assassination are like the Iron Age in American cinema. The gloss of Hollywood had fallen out of favor with audiences that were neck deep in the realness of the world. 

Fast-forward 40 years and it's a challenge for contemporary filmmakers to capture such an enigmatic time in society with any sense of authenticity. There is not only a particular look that needs to be replicated with the environment but there is also a unique attitude in the way people talked, walked and carried themselves. In some respects, American Hustle did a pretty good job capturing the feel of the the time, much of that came from Amy Adams in the role of con-artist Sydney Prosser.

Amy Adams has always been a non-entity on my radar. She has done some very reputable films and has always had a favorable view in the general populous. However, she never has made much of an impression on me. Until now. I was absolutely mesmerized by her performance, she was glowing. And it has nothing to do with her beauty, but her complete dedication to her role. She walked the walk, and talked the talk and when she put her hair in tight, slightly frizzy curls, she looked as if she walked out of a time machine straight out of 1978.

There is a great scene where Sydney and Irving (Christian Bale) have an argument in their hotel room. Sydney has decided that their relationship isn't working and she wants to break it off. She is crushed that despite the love they have for each other, he still feels obligated towards his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and their son. The break up is complicated because Sydney and Irving are intertwined in a federal bribery/fraud investigation and working as informants to avoid jail time. Sydney tells Irving that despite him breaking her heart, she is going to play her role perfectly (that of a wealthy British investor) and she is going to do everything she can to remind him of what he is losing as well as keep both of them out of jail.

During this conversation her hair is looks like a ginger Marcia Brady and she wears a long silk night gown like Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars. The way she moves, her expressions, everything about Adams is great, she embodies the era with the cadence of her voice, and every gesture that she makes. Though it must be stated that with Adam's triumph, there was equal failure. 

I really liked this star studded cast. I think there was a truly great chemistry between the characters and the actors who played them. Though I am teetering of whether or not Bradley Cooper was the right choice for the role of the police investigator, Richie DiMasio. He seemed less dedicated to the authenticity of the role and seemed to get a little caught up in the theatrics. The 70's cop is an easy role to parody and very difficult to get right. His character was meant to supply some of the films comedy but in the end it was a bit of a lost opportunity.

Christian Bale surprised me in this film, and it's not because his performance wasn't satisfactory. In fact, the role of Irving Rosenfeld is somewhat outside of what we have come to expect from the Dark Knight himself. Bale has always been known to take on roles that are larger than life, but this did not keep with that trend, which isn't a bad thing. Irving is what I consider to be a meek character. He is caught between his love for Sydney and his obligation towards Rosalyn, he is a lousy, mid-grade con-artist and willing to sell out his friends to save his own skin. I found that this was a really interesting character for Bale and it was not, at all, what I was expecting.

The supporting cast in this film is pretty outstanding as well. Jennifer Lawrence really captured Irving's wife Rosalyn perfectly, and Rosalyn is a real piece of work. She is a fast talking, chain smoking wino whose level of irresponsibility and smart-assery are off the charts, she also supplies almost all of the comedy in the film. What I loved about her character was her compulsive need to be right, and to be validated in her rightness at all costs. She takes credit for things she had nothing to do with, and while it's played for laughs, one can see that she does it as a way to protect herself in a world and in a relationship where she feels vulnerable.


My favorite scene in the film is when Irving, Dimasio, Sydney and Rosalyn all attend a fancy cocktail party that is crucial to Sydney's and Irving's con to entrap the people's politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) in a bribe. Sydney is upset upon seeing Irving and the stunningly gorgeous Rosalyn together, but that doesn't even come close to the incensed look on Roslyn's face upon seeing Sydney staring her down. Rosalyn creates a scene and announces to everyone that Sydney is her husbands 'whore.' She fumes as men buy her drinks to calm her down.

Moments later, Sydney meets Rosalyn in the bathroom and starts telling her that she should leave Irving because she doesn't love him and knows he is sleeping around. Rosalyn launches into the most beautiful monologue in which she tells Sydney that, "sometimes in life all you have is a set of fucked up choices," then she laughs maniacally, kisses Sydney and walks out. It was hands down, the most perfectly executed scene in the entire film. Adams and Lawrence together are electric, and it has nothing to do with the kiss. They play off each other so well that I wish the film had been entirely about the two of them.

The biggest piece of criticism I have for this film is the cinematography. I was so, wildly disappointed. I felt like there was a pretty massive opportunity to do something truly gritty and 70's. They should have used some grainy film stock or bumped up the oranges, browns and grain in post. The film was far, far, far too glossy for my liking and it reminded me with every frame, that this was just an interpretation of the 70's, it didn't actually immerse me in the era. The film had its fleeting moments of cinematic beauty, but it still felt too contemporary. However, the overall production design was pretty flawless, though I think it would have been better served if the cinematography had been held up to a higher standard.

Overall, there is a lot to love about this film. It is not my favorite of the year, but it is worth seeing. They are pitching this film as a comedy but I didn't find it particularly comedic. I think a drama punctuated with some funny situations is a far better characterization. The biggest strength of this film is clearly the cast. The story is ok, I was interested in it, but it's not remarkable in any sense. I think the average person will thoroughly enjoy American Hustle. It's a solid, well executed film.

B : The film gets a solid B thanks to flawless performances by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence and an interesting performance from Christian Bale. The film is fun, if a little heavy on the dialogue. The cinematography was disappointing for me, but it was slightly softened by great production design, interesting costumes.

Have you seen American Hustle? What did you think? Comment below! 

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