Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle: A Rebuttal

It’s rare that I write a take down review of a film I’m not much enamored with. I have always told myself that I hardly have enough time to write about all the films that I love, let alone find the time to write about films I dislike. Occasionally I get inspired however to write a contrarian view, especially when the film in question seems to be garnering heaps of praise. David O. Russell’s latest film, American Hustle seems to be building a good deal of momentum as the awards season kicks into gear. It has received a 90% rating at Metacritic and 94% at Rottentomatoes, certainly highly regarded from nearly the entire critical establishment. Watching the film first hand though, is something of a let-down. What is set up as a promising farcical piece of comedy led by an outstanding cast turns out to be cinematically sloppy, and is brought down by poorly executed pacing, such that one feels nearly every one of the 129 minutes.  Many people that I love and respect greatly, have an admiration for this film. I want to say that in no way whatsoever, should anyone who likes this film, view my thoughts as any sort of condemnation of them personally. I aim simply to express my thoughts on this film and to present very detailed analysis for why I think the film fails to reach its potential and thus remains underwhelming.

As most are aware, the film is about the inner workings of the Abscam Con in 1978, set in New Jersey and regarding the lives of a few con artists and related characters, among them those in the FBI and the mayor of Camden NJ. I’m not even going to get into the fact that the film's plot and execution plays as poor-man’s Scorsese. This angle to me, is the weakest argument against a film loaded with numerous issues. What is probably an easier complaint to argue is the blatant fact that the film lacks any particular stylistic cue of its own, despite the fact that numerous critics and bloggers have celebrated the “style” of American Hustle. The St. Louis Dispatch says, "As much as anything, the wildly entertaining ’70s flashback American Hustle is a triumph of style." The Sun-Times says, "American Hustle is the best time I’ve had at the movies all year, a movie so perfectly executed, such wall-to-wall fun, so filled with the joy of expert filmmaking on every level I can’t imagine anyone who loves movies not loving THIS movie." I beg someone, literally get down on my knees and beg someone to explain to me what this particular “style” is? I saw nothing beyond the usual use 70’s tunes and costumes. Don’t we expect this? It’s not really a style so much as it is a price of market entry. One can’t possibly make a 70’s film without the 70’s look. If we’re talking about camera-work, there’s nothing distinctive there either. There are no long takes, or bravado camera movements to be found in the entire film. It is filmed in the exact same ensemble style that his previous films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter were made in. I’m simply finding no evidence in this film of a stylistic element that is worthy of mention. I hope someone will explain to me what this brilliant style is that I’m missing. It has none of the drive and propulsion and sense of real stakes that Scorsese infuses into his works. Russell does not do himself any favors by filming in a style of another director, and then doing a weaker, less propulsive version of it.

This brings me to probably what is most problematic for me, and that is the pacing. In the first hour of the film, we spend most of our time mired in exposition, as the story our two con artists played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams is examined in totality (let’s take it from the top). I mean the story starts in the middle, and then bounces completely back to the beginning, with the point of view shifting between the two of them for roughly an entire hour. This wouldn’t be such an issue, if the film continued to examine their relationship and story-thread, but the film then spends an entire second half on a series of con-games, as the list of characters and storythreads balloons beyond the film's capacity for functionality. Jennifer Lawrence appears in exactly one scene in the first half, and then dominates key screen time in the second hour. It’s almost a reverse for Adams, who dominates the first half, and nearly disappears from the screen in the second half as attention is shifted to Lawrence. This jarring and misguided editing element proves an issue as the film continues to introduce new characters only to have them vanish, for instance the characters related to Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent, like his mother and fiancé who appear and disappear just as quickly. Or how about the cameo by Robert DeNiro, who appears in exactly one scene, a scene which builds nicely and then fizzles out without any real pizazz, wasting his presence. He never shows up again. How about Jeremy Renner? He continues to gain in screen time throughout the middle portion, and then disappears toward the end, despite the fact that the film wants us to feel sorry for his Mayor of Camden, New Jersey. All of these characters simply begin to make the film feel long, and screen time is devoted to them without intention of creating proper character arcs. All of these characters strain the focus and spread the ice very thin. As for the acting, it’s hit and miss. Christian Bale dives in completely for a role and film that is not exactly worth the effort. He is actually more deserving of better material considering his wholehearted acting. Bradley Cooper, who had begun to gain respect for his acting in Silver Linings Playbook and The Place Beyond the Pines, drops the ball here, returning to his casual, smirking jack-ass. Amy Adams does an admirable job in a role with no real pay-off or story arc as her character is given short shrift toward the end of the film. 

Perhaps the one most successful, despite what some will have you believe, is Jennifer Lawrence, who is perhaps the single most important element of the film. Lawrence plays Bale’s naïve and emotionally fraught Jersey Girl wife and mother of his adopted child. If the con-artists are the wizard, then Lawrence provides a look behind the curtain. What she represents among all the conning and goings on, is the exposing of the con-artists as delusional, and self-absorbed. When she’s onscreen, everyone around her is paranoid she will give away the scam, as if she’s some uncontrollable wrecking ball. Watching those around her attempt to control her is hilarious. In fact, she’s so naïve and in disbelief of what’s going on, she is able to emphasize the accidental “talent” of our con-artists, who are nothing but insecure losers who continue to lie to themselves. Lawrence is the one character who exposes the fraud through her own misguided sense of entitlement as if she's part of the game. The single most successful scene in the film, and probably the funniest, is the one where Bale confronts her in the bedroom over her accidental confession to the mob that she believes her husband is doing illegal acts. She is able to turn the scene around at the end such that her own ignorance is seen as a sort of grandiose turn of luck. If only more scenes utilized the balancing act that all those around her must do to keep her at bay. Russell fails to recognize the potential of the conflict though as he under-utilizes her in the entire first half. Frankly, the three best scenes in the film involve her. The one I just mentioned, the scene where she and Adams confront each other in the bathroom ending with a ludicrous kiss on the lips, and the one where she goes on about her fingernail polish at dinner. She represents a central conflict in the film, one potentially loaded with comedic opportunity, and yet Russell continues to focus on the churnings and the con-games as if they’re well written and intricate enough for us to care about these people, which actually gives Bale, Adams, and Cooper’s characters far too much credit, and allows for the film to present their pathetic stories as something worth following in and of itself. I’m sorry. I find all the conning more funny and pathetic than anything, yet Russell under-delivers the central elements of the comedic potential in favor a kitchen sink approach where he wants us to laugh and to care at the same time.

One of the biggest trends within the critical community the last few years especially, is heaping praise and year end awards upon films that are so utterly average. In 2011, it was The Artist. Last year it was Argo, and this year it is already American Hustle. What these films have in common is a complacent type of filmmaking. These films are low-hanging, cinematic fruit that are primarily aimed at the November-January cineaste and the Oscar-ites. You know the type. That guy who spends a few months out of the year catching up on a few of the “important” films so that when Academy Awards come around he can play Oscar bingo (“Look Ma, I just checked four nominees off my list with one film!”). In reality, this same guy spends the rest of the year watching super hero movies and horror flicks. Perhaps the biggest con of all, is that Russell has somehow convinced the critical masses that he’s made a masterpiece.  Last year, there was a genuine build of word of mouth over his rather sweet and romantic character study of two flawed individuals who need each other in Silver Linings Playbook. That film never aspired toward greatness, but was content with a rather focused and poignant examination of people. Those that bashed the film for it’s somehow inappropriate treatment of mental illness were missing the fact that there’s something called artistic license. What happened after that though, was that the film built buzz so that come nomination time, it hauled in several nominations, somewhat unheard of for a romantic comedy, a genre that is much maligned these days. That film I labeled as Russell’s best film to date, and one of my 10 favorites of the 2012, but certainly nowhere near best film of the year. Russell however, is wildly erratic. I liked the funny I Heart Huckabees, but loathed The Fighter’s simple-mindedness. I loved Silver Linings Playbook, but in my mind he’s overstepped himself with American Hustle.

Perhaps the most egregious and annoying element above the flawed pacing, is another example of how Russell wants to have his cake and eat it too, which is the final con in the film, whereby Adams and Bale trick Cooper and all his FBI folks into thinking they’ve finally apprehended the crooks and brought down the big guys. What’s amazing is how the veneer of the surprise ending that Russell uses disguises the fact that his cinematic approach throughout the entire film had been one of relative transparency, meaning up until the ending he had deliberately showed us the machinations and backgrounds of the cons for the entire film, except when it’s convenient for him to conceal the elements of a con that will provide the audience with a cheaply earned “surprise ending”, giving the audience a signpost that lets them know they’ve seen a good movie. Russell’s film wouldn’t need to rely on this thinly veiled inconsistent piece of cinematic hubris if his film was better written. But because he’d spread his characters and interests too thin all throughout, the ending is trite. My hope is that the critical masses will correct their errors and begin praising more worthy films, like McQueen's masterful 12 Years a Slave and Linklater's Before Midnight, two films that are challenging and progressive. 


Dan O. said...

Good review Jon. Though it definitely does feel a lot like a Scorsese flick, it's still so much fun that I couldn't help but get past that and just look on the bright side.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, I saw your headline after posting my own rave and felt I owed you a look. Russell's definitely done a semi-parody of the classical Scorsese storyline and I found it very effective on that pastiche level. I also ended up more indulgent of the story's shagginess and more impressed by Cooper's work as, after all, the villain of the piece. Lawrence was also very funny, though I found her kiss of Adams gratuitous. Some people may be overrating this as a work of cinematic art but I did find it highly entertaining and so did the theater audience that applauded at the end. No, it isn't the best film of the year, but right now it's a top-ten item for me. That doesn't oblige anyone else to approve of it, however, and no one should hold your criticisms against you.

Jon said...

@ Dan - I am certainly in the minority as I for some reason didn't have as much fun as I was expecting and the expectation part might just be the problem.

@ Samuel - Thanks for reading my post and for acknowledging my perspective. I am certainly understanding that many have applauded this film....and I like that you are mentioning how the film is more in the realm of entertainment than a form of art. I don't think it aspires toward artistry.....interesting what you say about the story's shagginess....which I am finding that more and more people seem to liken this an endearing quality. Perhaps that's the delineation right there. I will read your review shortly.

DHS said...

I enjoyed the film a bit more than you, but I agree - the editing and pacing were way off and this missed an opportunity to be truly great, though I still think it's very entertaining.

What I agree more with, though, is your central conceit that critics and the Academy continue to gush over well made mediocrity - The Artist (a complete gimmick film) being the worst of the lot - and Argo (again, entertaining, but nothing more) and now perhaps this film (which I think is better than Argo because of the colorful performances) following suit.

I just hope this doesn't beat out 12 Years a Slave - that would be a true travesty.

Jon said...

DHS - Thanks for the thoughts and what you say I agree with for the most part. There is something going on with critics and the academy the last few years that is extremely puzzling to me and it's possible we could also go back to The King's Speech as well, which was okay but certainly not tremendous. 2010 was an overall weak year in my estimation though with Blue Valentine, The Social Network, and Winter's Bone the only real standouts now for me. I am with you though.....12 Years a Slave is an important work and utterly devastating. It would say alot about our nation that I wouldn't be proud of should we choose to honor something like American Hustle in favor of 12 Years a Slave. Seriously, I would be more than insulted and probably livid if that happened. The Artist and Argo are such benign and forgettable films. I just can't understand how we continue to honor films that are pure escapism and say absolutely in let's just ignore real life and real artistry for something frivolous. I am all for escapism, but rarely...and I mean very rarely is an escapist film truly the best of the year.

Sachin said...

Jon, replied to your comment on WitD. But I am glad to see someone call this film out. It is average despite some nice moments, like the bedroom scene. But as you mention, awarding average films is getting to be a trend. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is far better than this but now fear it won't get the nod.

Sam Juliano said...

Well this was certainly an impassioned essay Jon, I'll give you that. You state your case clearly and no doubt for many quite persuasively. But as I have stated elsewhere I am a big fan of the film, (the first Russell film I have liked in fact) and like others on this thread found it sensationally entertaining. Yeah its about corruption and consmanship, but I think it was well-paced myself, and acted superbly by the cast. I do believe that 12 YEARS A SLAVE will cop the Oscar though,just as it has copped the overwhelming number of critics' awards. I was in full agreement two years ago with the deserved dominance of THE ARTIST from all the critics' groups and A.M.P.A.S.

It all comes down to taste, but it appears the overwhelming majority of people this year do have the "taste" for AMERICAN HUSTLE.

Catherine Short said...

Part of the problem is it's practically impossible to see anything other than Super Hero movies and what Hollywood deems worth while. I would have loved to see 12 Years a Slave, but it'll remain on my sticky note of rentals.
Is it just me or have you noticed the trend of releasing films in January that actually are films from the previous year. Inside Llewyn Davis and Labor Day are both getting their wide release in January.

Jon said...

@ Sam - You and I have already conversed elsewhere on this but thanks again as always for the comments. We both agree that 12 Years a Slave is more deserving.

@ Catherine - As for the whole January thing, I'm wondering if it's marketing and timing related to buzz during awards season?