American Hustle

(USA - 2013)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Alessansro Nivola, Robert De Niro
Genre: Crime/Drama
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Composer: Danny Elfman

Even if we were talking about Shelter Island or the entirely forgettable, poorly cast Aviator, the pedestrian especially by his own standards recent Martin Scorsese where poor effects replace set design and the old do it yourself creativity, it would be a sad day when one had to even consider debating whether Scorsese can do Scorsese better than anyone else. However, Wolf of Wall Street is truly top drawer Scorsese, unarguably the most dazzling and energetic filmmaking he's done since Bringing Out the Dead, and although in the familiar territory of degenerate criminals, a film that really adds to Dead in reinforcing how underrated he is as a comic director. It's been a while, but Scorsese is totally in command of the medium again with Wolf of Wall Street, to the point where 3 hours seemed like 30 minutes because everything was on point, adding to the experience, and sucking you deeper into the wild world they were portraying.

Comparing Wolf of Wall Street to American Hustle just because a director of no particular style who couldn't even make a marginally interesting film with Isabelle Huppert decided to do a sophomoric rush job mash-up of wannabe Scorsese worship without the slightest bit of understanding is akin to comparing Alfred Hitchcock to William Castle (though at least Castle is notable and innovative as a movie promoter) just because the schlock master wanted to be taken seriously and decided if his Homicidal had enough similarities to Psycho it would prove he was a legitimate filmmaker. Well, similarity is nice if it's in quality, but in both cases, where it actually mattered, there was none.

Silver Linings Playbook was assembly line movie making at it's most predictable. It tells the worn out romance of the new couple who don't like each other at first, then the girl falls in love with the guy and does everything she can to make the blockhead realize she's the right girl for him rather than the non reciprocating one he's inexplicably fixated on, his “climactic” realization of the proper woman leaving everything right in the world. It's all told in the most standard, generic manner, with typical shot/reverse shot setups, the camera sometimes moving to the fixed point as in the storyboard to set up the scene moving on with an edit. There's too many edits and pop songs, of course, but at least the former are in logical points and the later were thought out enough to fit the movie so it all flows seamlessly enough and at least doesn't come off as a music video. The camera setups, movements, edits, and music accomplish their purpose in the typical bland, uninspired, and academic manner that resulted in Russell standing out so little from the other factory directors I didn't realize he was a guy who used his middle initial rather than an Irishman until I sat down to write this review!

Awards Hustle is an attempt at a much more inspired brand of filmmaking. I wish I could say it was ambitious, and this was where Russell finally used the success of his profitable yet forgettable works to make a real movie. Unfortunately, the crucial problem with his latest is you never for a second get the slightest sense that anyone involved understood how to rip Scorsese off. They know what Scorsese's films look like in the most general sense, but there's not even an indication that they studied them enough to comprehend how to pull off the palest and most shallow imitation, or perhaps they simply lack even that level of talent. In any case, no one involved seemed to have a clue why the camera was moving, why they're editing at any particular point, why a random song was blaring on the soundtrack, and so on. All they knew was that camera movement, editing, and pop music are key elements in Goodfellas and Scorsese in general. Unlike the driving, flowing precision Wolf of Wall Street, a perfect cohesion of showing the story while telling it and vice versa, Russell just has his characters stand around rambling aimlessly about the latest unconvincing con, moves the camera for a while then illogically edits to a different angle or distance of the same scene as the same characters continue their ranting and songs that have nothing to do with anything threaten to drown them out. Forcing myself to make it through the film, I just kept myself interested by wondering how often Quentin Dupieux would be saying “NO REASON” about the entirety of what was passing across the screen. For all the attempts at energetic filmmaking, the scenes would actually have played better if they just framed a single still shot for the scene and let the characters speak the plot unimpeded.

Beyond the generally haphazard nature of everything going on technically, Awards Hustle is an unbelievable, inorganic movie of such tameness that exists only in it's own Hollywood fantasy world. Was I the only one who was scratching my head when an outed IRS snitch (Christian Bale) was only briefly choked by mobsters until he talked himself back into full trust to the point of no longer even seeming to be someone of questionably loyalty and intention? Or when an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) garnered support from above through brutalizing his boss (Louis C.K.) with a phone?

Awards Hustle is for some reason revered for it's acting performances, but simply the voice of Scarlett Johansson in Spike Jonze's excellent Her blows away the work of Amy Adams in Her or Awards Hustle. Yes, the women in Awards Hustle perform considerably better than the men (De Niro, who was the only truly recommendable thing about Silver Linings Playbook has a good cameo here, but it's another of the aforementioned only in a movie moments where he is about to walk out because he doesn't believe the fake Sheik for a minute but then switches to full born yesterday level support because the Sheik can actually utter one whole sentence in what's supposed to be his native tongue), but there were dozens of far more credible and convincing actress performance in 2013 including Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, Adele Exarchopoulos & Lea Seydoux in Blue Is the Warmest Color, Brit Marling in The East, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, Cosmina Stratan & Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills, Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color, Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, Penelope Cruz in Twice Born, Berenice Bejo in The Past, & Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now.

To my eyes, the acting in Awards Hustle is universally forgettable, partly because the script is so unbelievable and uninteresting I couldn't care what they were going on endlessly about as the camera randomly swirled and annoying songs added nothing to the mood, partly because the Halloween costumes that are supposed to transport you back to the 1970's only succeeded in distracting and distancing me from the delusion, and partly because there's so little depth, dimension, and subtlety that anyone could have played any of these roles. Jennifer Lawrence is probably the best of the bunch, but in the Russell movies she isn't challenged to actually act as in Winter's Bone, but rather asked to bluster, ramble, and be a selfish, peevish child.

Christian Bale can be a great actor when reigned in, which he, like everyone else, isn't here, or even when he's over the top as in American Psycho because that character is written well enough to justify it. He does give a memorable performance this year in a movie that should be much less credible and serious, Scott Cooper's revenge flick Out of the Furnace, that was actually written and directed to actually be believable, compelling, about something and to rise above the sleazy genre. I would not have a problem with anyone who wanted to give Bale an award for that performance.

Bradley Cooper is supposed to be crazy in Silver Linings Playbook, but actually seems far more normal in that movie because his performance isn't that much more contrived or over the top than the rest of the cast. He has enough scenes with his friends, particularly the always beyond awful Chris Tucker, that they almost make him seem passable. In Awards Hustle, he's so over the top he's looking down from Planet 9. His repeated outbursts are so cartoonish in nature they are unintentionally comedic, perhaps that and the dorky costumes are what qualifies this as a comedy? Not that The Golden Globes have ever been meaningful to any real film fan, but I didn't realize I was giving them so much credit as to previously assume their best comedy would at least purport to be a comedy. Seriously, aside from Louis C.K.'s fishing story, which is mostly funny because it's never finished, I don't know what else is funny about this movie, but I think Russell could direct Cooper to a great drugged out parody of the Big Bad Wolf at a College theater assuming the entire audience was stoned out of their mind.

Having seen the two Russell films, I, of course, expected Cooper to continue to suck in Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines. However, while he's obviously no Ryan Gosling, Cianfrance reigns Cooper in and keeps him within a normal register. Having just killed a perpetrator and been shot himself, his cop is at least as confused as his rehabilitating mental patent in Silver Linings Playbook, but here he acts like a real human being with only minor inflection and an actually believable hesitation/babble/stutter when he's trying to figure out how to express what he's been and continues to go through. I wouldn't rate The Place Beyond the Pines quite as highly as Cianfrance's previous film Blue Valentine, but it's a film of genuine ambition.

I'm digging into American Hustle because people shouldn't be fooled by the Hustle, but is one can divorce themselves from Hollywood's manner of promoting their December releases (and thus burying all the actually good films that were released in the first 9 or 10 months that are no longer playing in theaters), Awards Hustle isn't the sort of film one would normally have a strong reaction to. It's a lot of flash and no substance, a tepid and limp film that's not really about anything so it isn't controversial or offensive or memorable in any way. It asks little of the audience and just randomly keeps the music video and dialogue pumping for an overlong 140 minutes like countless other popcorn movies that are flat and contrived but just kind of there twisting, turning, charging steamlessly through their own nonsensical rainbow world that's neither particularly interesting or boring. In the end, it was just Halloween costumed characters going miles over the top jabbering endlessly about nothing anyone believed in. It should be a simple choice for anyone who wants to see Scorsese to check out the real thing with Wolf of Wall Street, but the one successful aspect of Hustle is the con job the marketing team has been pulling off.



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