Saturday, December 21, 2013

American Hustle--Movie Review: Great Acting; Tepid Movie

Photo: Movie's poster, from its Wikipedia page.

Outstanding performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence didn't save this movie for me.  It's worth seeing for their performances alone--especially Adams', who appears like I've never seen her before--but you shouldn't necessarily think that the movie will be great because of them.

Though normally you would, right?  If you have three great performances--it's really Bale's film--and two other very good ones, then the movie should be great.  This is a first for me, that one movie could have so much great acting and yet still not work for me.  I mean, it was alright, but you'd expect much more, right?

The problem is in the writing.  Essentially, the scriptwriters wrote themselves into a corner that they couldn't escape.  The whole point of the film is that everyone's conning everyone, including themselves, and in the end, someone's got to walk away, which means someone's going to get the most conned.  And the way it was pulled off really didn't work for me.  And I mean, really.

For many reasons.  First, I had no doubt who'd walk away.  [Spoilers now.]  Bale and Adams were clearly going to stay together, and Lawrence was clearly going to walk away with her criminal boyfriend, yet stay on good terms with Bale.  You didn't know what would happen to everyone else, but you hoped for the best.

Well, that doesn't happen.  Jeremy Renner's character, who comes across perhaps as the nicest in the movie, gets sent to jail, as do the other politicians whose hearts are in the right places, but whose hands are in the wrong wallets and pockets.  And the FBI agent, who had a hubris problem and ultimately wanted his name in lights more than he wanted to fight crime--but who was still fighting crime, and killers and mobsters!--at the end looks dejected and doesn't get the credit for the politicians' arrests that he deserves.  And he may get fired, as well.  The serial killer mobster gets away, as do the two main characters, who essentially preyed on the pathetic, lost and desperate before they were caught. 

This makes the viewer--at least this viewer--feel like he's had to swallow too much Castor oil.  The acting is so good that you root for Bale and Adams and Lawrence, though you understand that the first two are criminals, and that the last one is an annoyance that her prettiness and crazy courage hide most of the time.  These are not nice people, though they are all trying to be, kind of, though you don't see enough of that to really root for them.  You just take their word for it when they say so, and they're so sad, and they're trying so hard, that you root for them.  And Bale cares about this kid, and Adams and Lawrence are so pretty, and then you realize that you're not really talking about the qualities of the film anymore, or the characters, and that something's amiss.

And that's the biggest problem.  You root for them because of the great acting, and not because of the characters' inherent worthiness.  Bale and Adams constantly say they're trying to be good, but only Bale convinces, and that's only at the end.  And he fails miserably trying to be the good guy who tries to save the actual good guy who's done an unwise thing.  These two characters are also likable more for the acting of those who portray them than they are for any likeability they actually have.  Bale, again, comes across as the more likeable, since he looks so ever-suffering, and since he truly loves both women, and the son of one of them--a boy who's not even his.  Adams comes across as very likeable (and as very very...well, never mind), though the viewer wonders where her loyalty lies, probably because she does, too.  Ultimately she wasn't as strong a character as she could have been, as I wanted her to be.  That was another big letdown.

Another issue is David O. Russell's sleight-of-hand.  The director shows you all of their hustles, all of their swindles, and he shows you all of the conversations about all of the hustles and swindles--but then doesn't show you the one that really matters at the end.  You don't know the hustle is on because you weren't shown it, while you were shown all the others.  That's a writer's and director's cheat.  How could the viewer possibly know it?  You see all of Bale's and Adams' conversations, and heart-rending conflicts, but you don't see the one they put together when it matters?  And when we're finally shown it, it isn't that awe-inspiring.  Essentially, it's just a lie, really.  The one they lie to is a charismatic, fast-talking, hyperkinetic--a role Bradley Cooper has played quite a few times now, in almost every film he's ever been in.  (Sorta makes me wonder if he's acting, or if he's playing Bradley Cooper playing these characters.  But I digress.)  The problem here is that he's at least fighting crime, not doing it (though he walks that fine line for awhile), and he's interesting and funny--and he's the one that loses out.  He doesn't get the credit he deserves, although he ambitiously reached for the stars, and wasn't boring.  Now he's got to go live with his annoying mother and his ignored fiancee--which wasn't very nice of him, either, the way he treats her, but that's really the least bad thing in a movie full of characters who all do some very bad things.  He's at least not hustling her, as he lets her hear as he tells Adams' character that he'll be right over.  Adams, who knows he's engaged, is still more than happy to spend time with him, and...bleh.

Why do some get away with it, and why do some don't, and why does the worst--the serial-killing mobster--get to go home?  It's never explained, and by the end, I was so over it that I just wanted to praise the performances and move on.

The worst thing I can say--if I haven't said enough already--is that this movie is by far the shortest of the ones I've seen recently, but it felt like the longest.  The Desolation of Smaug and Catching Fire were much, much longer movies--but didn't seem it.  American Hustle was much shorter--by about an hour, compared to the other two--yet seemed too long.  True, the others are action films, and the acting in them doesn't come close--yet, they may have been better films anyway.

It's too bad.  Not since Edward Norton's performance in American History X and Denzel Washington's in Training Day have I loved the performance and disliked the movie.  I don't dislike American Hustle as much as I disliked those two--as I mentioned before, this movie was okay--but it was still such a letdown. 

Those other two movies only had one great performance in them.  American Hustle has at least three--and it still left me with a case of Whatever.

Irrelevant Note: It was nice to see in the previews that Kevin Costner will be back soon in two major movies.  There will be other old geezers from the 80s and 90s returning to film this Christmas through February, and all of their movies look good.  (Let's hope they actually are.)

Irrelevant Note 2: Viewers of Boardwalk Empire will note Shea Whigham (who plays Nucky's brother) and the guy who played the assassin with the ruined face (who was really the best character the last few years) in American Hustle.  The director, David O. Russell, came to popularity with Three Kings, which co-starred Mark Wahlberg.  And what does Mark Wahlberg co-produce?  That's right--Boardwalk Empire.  It's not what you know, it's who you know, I suppose.  Of course you know that Lawrence and Cooper followed Russell from Silver Linings Playbook...Don't ask me how I know and remember such things--I just do.  

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