Wednesday, 5 February 2014

American Hustle

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence

Directed by: David O. Russell

Written by: David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer

When con-artists Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are caught out by up-and-coming FBI agents Rich DiMaso (Cooper), he makes them an offer; if they’ll help him entrap some bigger fish, they can get on with their lives without charge. Soon though, the new hustle is spiralling out of control, and they’ll have to think faster than they ever have before to get out of it alive.

‘American Hustle’ has all the makings of an instant classic. Russell is a smart, talented director, most famous for ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, the unexpectedly brilliant comedy about love, grief and mental illness. The cast list is genuinely outstanding. And it’s based on a true story, a classic tale of American politics and corruption, the first time video was used to capture illicit dealings. It’s been nominated for many of the big Oscars – best picture, best performance in all four acting categories – and several of the ‘lesser’ ones such as costume.

I can only assume that the board at the Academy felt that it was a pretty thin year in those categories. For a film to pick up that many nominations it needs to be a truly astonishing work of art, but ‘American Hustle’ barely achieves adequacy, never mind greatness.

Normally, I can apportion the blame for a bad film amongst various people. With this though, the fault seems to lie pretty squarely with Russell himself, given that he pulled double duties as director and co-writer. The script is the main problem; while mostly perfectly serviceable, it does occasionally drift into absolute howler territory. Quite which of Russell and Singer thought the line “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything” was anything other than first draft material at best should be ashamed of themselves, and they have a tin ear for naturalistic banter – unless you enjoy watching people tell each other “This is bullshit!” “No, you’re bullshit!”, I suppose.

A lacklustre script can be covered up if the story is good though, and this really isn’t. In fairness, Russell and Singer are perhaps hampered in that regard; as I said, it’s based on a true story, albeit loosely. The first shot of the film is the caption “Some of this happened”. So perhaps I shouldn’t criticise them for the needlessly convoluted plot, since presumably that’s actually what happened, and they’d get more flak for trying to alter history to better suit the film than the other way around. However, there are ways and means of working that to still make an engaging story, and they’ve failed miserably in this instance. Again in fairness, convoluted plotting is part and parcel of the con-movie genre. Nobody wants to watch a film where a bunch of criminals sit down and plan something and it all goes perfectly to plan. Watching them try to marshal the chaos is part of the fun. Here though, there’s no point in trying to pay attention to stay one step ahead to work out the puzzle, as it all gets reworked every twenty minutes or so regardless. Again, hampered by real life I suppose, but it still renders most of the first hour more or less pointless.

But hey, if the scripts weak and the story un-engaging, we can still rely on some cracking performances, right? Well…up to a point. All of the cast are perfectly fine, although it might take you a while to see past the wigs. The problem is that you don’t care about any of them. Bale invests his character with more than the script really deserves, delivering a rather nuanced performance of a rather sleazy, pathetic individual with hidden moral depths, but the rest of the cast are short-changed. Adams does her best, but Prosser is a character constructed from so many different facades that she doesn’t have much genuine personality, and while this is deliberate and acknowledged on screen, the fact that she’s deliberately bland and distant doesn’t make it ok. Cooper’s DiMaso is simply annoying at best, and intensely dislikeable at worst. Renner’s politician actually is somewhat interesting, but by the time he gets any significant screentime I had already lost interest, and his performance isn’t quite good enough to drag you back in. Lawrence is engaging, but that’s purely for the fact that her character is a massive screw up who manages to introduce a note of chaos to proceedings everytime she comes on, whether that’s destroying a microwave or cheerfully engaging a room full of mobsters in conversation, and it’s in no way an Oscar worthy role (she’s been nommed for supporting actress).

It isn’t impossible to make a film about unlikeable people and still make something entertaining, as Scorsese has shown with ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ in recent weeks. You just need to do it well, and this hasn’t been. In essence, based on the content of the film, I’m just not convinced the story needed to be told. It’s a fairly uninteresting story about political corruption, the only quirks being the involvement of con-artists controlled by the FBI and the fact that before the operation to uncover corruption, there wasn’t any corruption to find, DiMaso being so determined to bag himself a big fish that he goes out of his way to bribe one of the few decent politicians in the state to do so. It’s not exactly Watergate, as political scandals go.

All of that said though, the Seventies appeared to have been recreated perfectly, and some of the hair-dos were works of art. But that shouldn’t be the highest praise I can offer to a film with these credentials.

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