American Hustle

January 9, 2014

Trying to piss down both legs of his pants David O Russell ends up with a wet patch of a movie, that works neither as a crime caper nor a screwball comedy. A fusion that may have crackled had he spent as much time tightening the plot as he did in the centre of an era-aping circle jerk, it instead flickers and goes out.

Drawing on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s, early 80s it follows two con artists (a terrific Christian Bale and Amy Adams) snared by the FBI and pressed into using their corrupting powers for good, helping the Bureau ‘entrap’ four public figures. As the case develops the agent heading it up (a jelly curled Bradley Cooper) gets the whiff of public corruption in the water and makes a bee line for fame and glory, targeting greater and greater targets. US Senators, city Mayors and Mafia dons are all in his increasingly deranged eye line, putting the Bureau’s reputation, their very lives and the hopes of a run down community- whose beloved politico he set up, on the line.

The problem is, nothing ever seems to be at stake.

It pummels us with period detail, repeated jokes that decrease in pay outs and Scorsese-like camera trickery that works like a player’s charm, distracting us from the fact that despite all the visual kooks and enforced zaniness, nothing here is real. Which may be the point. It is after all a movie about con artists. But twist after turn nothing that occurs within this movie’s running time-which is as bloated as Bale’s stomach, surprises the audience. For people who are supposed to be trying to dupe and deceive one another they hold their cards with a limp wrist, meaning there is no tension, no second guessing just ‘ohhs’ and ‘ahhs’ at the slow-mo montages, soft rock soundtrack and stunt cameos that cheapen the tale further.

The darkness that corroded the feel good factor of Russell’s earlier work is more stated and less effective now, much like in last year’s overrated Silver Linings Playbook, featuring the equally overrated Jenifer Lawrence. Miscast again as Bale’s loose-lipped, tripped switch of a wife, she is, here, the epitome of all that is wrong with his recent films-and Hollywood in general. She inhales the comedy of a scene, becomes engorged on it rather than letting it happen naturally, one part of a rounded character. She stumbles about on the same smug that’s marked Meryl Streep’s later career instead of trying to fin the humanity in the hilarity. Think Teri Garr. Think Jennifer Tilly. Think for yourselves rather than investing her with the greatness the PR machine has-to date, so successfully rammed down every one’s throat.

As for the rest, while in the past Russell has managed to assemble some electric ensembles, here- beyond Bale and Adams and an under utilised Louis CK(as Coopers overwhelmed superior), nothing clicks. Jeremy Renner rides the sweeter side of Joe Peschi for all its worth as the aforementioned Mayor, Alessandro Nivola and Jack Houston pop up as machinations rather than characters and Cooper is a victim of poor penning. His best bits feel improvised, while the rest of the time he seems to go from 0-90 on the manic scale without retaining anything that seems like a through line. He clouts, he roars, he has curlers in his hair, but his performance actually feels like it was shot out of sequence, differing totally from one scene to the next.The third point in a triangle he evokes no pathos from the audience, pitching what should have been a tightly wound caper further out of the waters of Preston Sturges it so wanted to sail in.

As Russel pursues the acceptance and acclaim only mainstream Hollywood can dispense his movies drift further away from the offbeat ground they once stalked. The eccentricity of character takes a back seat to some kooky crap that substitutes honest humour and, as borrowed style covers asinine plots our once intriguing hero betrays his inventive roots.


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