Wednesday, 1 January 2014

American Hustle

Already attracting awards buzz and with seven Golden Globe nominations to its name, David O. Russell’s American Hustle is one of the early showers from this year’s awards season. Set in the late 1970s and making use of an ensemble cast plucked from his most recent productions, the film is set in the world of an experienced and successful con artist called Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Irving and his partner Sydney (Amy Adams) are caught by cocksure and ambitious FBI Agent Richard DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) who offers immunity in exchange for help in capturing more prized targets.

The plot isn’t a strong area of American Hustle which is why I’m surprised its screenplay has received many of the film’s plaudits. Although it spirals seemingly uncontrollably into deeper recesses of confusion, subterfuge and double cross, it features a sagging belly larger than that sported by Bale and drags on for too long before reaching its always expected conclusion. The movie’s strengths lie elsewhere, primarily in the design and acting, two areas for which the film deserves all the plaudits its being given.

Although stylish and attractive to look at, this isn’t in the traditional sense. Rather Russell takes a slightly off kilter approach to his character design, taking attractive actors and imposing odd, amusing and unattractive physical flaws upon them. Christian Bale appears on screen belly first with an awful comb over, Bradley Cooper has terrible curls and Jennifer Lawrence has the gate and composure of a drunken fawn. Somehow it all works and when combined with a great wardrobe and some excellent set design, there’s never any doubt that you’re entrenched in the fur lined, golden walled late 1970s.

O. Russell makes frequent directorial decisions that reminded me a lot of Martin Scorsese’s work. From an opening that is taken from the second act to the camera movement, this often feels like a Scorsese knock-off, albeit a well made one. Christian Bale even appears to be impersonating a Scorsese-esque De Niro, gaining weight, making the ‘De Niro face’ and speaking with an almost identical accent. The movie also features typical Scorsese characters such as the ambitious, slightly corruptible cop, down and out con man, glamorous, catty female and authority figure on the take. This is the most ‘Scorsese’ film since Casino.   

Although I wasn’t completely enamoured with the plot, there were things that I enjoyed greatly. I liked the character’s confusion and that you were never sure who were really conning who. I also thought that it was clever that despite all the strong male characters, it was really the women who were in charge. There are also moments of humour, though I never really laughed heartedly. Still, the movie makes some decent attempts at black comedy and pulls it off occasionally. The farcical nature of the ever spiralling lies provides some the best laughs. The plot falls down in its length. I believe at least twenty minutes could have been trimmed from the 138 that make up the movie. It would have also been beneficial to take an occasional step back because although the character’s confusion was welcomed, it was a bit messy at times. Sometimes there was too much going on and you needed a break. Fortunately one does come late on. It’s also responsible for the funniest moment and features Jennifer Lawrence, rubber gloves and a record. The film would have benefitted from more of these moments.

I have nothing bad to say about the acting. Despite being partly improvised, you always get great performances from the principle players, including perhaps my favourite so far from Jennifer Lawrence. I think both she and Bradley Cooper are better here than they were in Silver Linings Playbook. There’s a nice unbilled cameo from one of the all time greats and Christian Bale takes a typically method approach. He’s utterly excellent. Amy Adams has some good moments but speaks in a terrible English accent. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt as it’s the character’s accent so it might have been bad on purpose. I hope so. Other than the dodgy accent, this is a terrific actor’s film. Alongside the central performances, there are also some nice small roles for the likes of Louis C.K, Michael Pena and Jack Huston. All perform admirably.

Aside from all I’ve mentioned so far, there is just one more thing that I believe worthy of note and that is the slight leery eye the camera takes to Amy Adam’s character. Often dressed provocatively, the camera photographs her from vulnerable and exposed positions, focussing on her legs and chest more than it does for any other character. She plays a Femme fetale type and plays it well but the decision to focus so readily on her figure was an unusual one. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t photographed in the same way and I don’t believe that David O. Russell is following Michael Bay’s lead so it must be a character based decision. Perhaps it is meant to distract the audience from the character’s intelligence and cunning but it was still a little off. 

Overall American Hustle is a solid film. More of a character study than a drama; it isn’t totally engrossing but is fun to watch and features some fantastic performances. The movie looks and sounds great and while I don’t think it will trouble many major award ceremonies for top prizes, it’s a decent opening to the award’s season.   

GFR 7/10

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