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Sunday, January 5, 2014

"American Hustle" Funny, Clever, Shallow, Gimmicky

"American Hustle" is a laugh-out-loud funny, very clever, well-produced, well-acted movie about conmen, crooked politicians, and an FBI sting operation. I enjoyed it while I was watching it but it left me empty. I didn't care about any of the characters or the plot points. I wasn't rooting for anybody and I wasn't involved in anything. Ultimately "American Hustle" felt been-there-done-that to me, and gimmicky and shallow. It reminded me of a lot of previous films about lovable gangsters and conmen, like "Goodfellas," "The Sting," and "Guys and Dolls." Christian Bale as petty conman Irving Rosenfeld reminded me of Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit.

The gimmicks begin as the movie opens. It opens on a shot of Christian Bale's fat and bloated stomach. Bale is famous for losing weight for his role in "The Machinist." Then he became buff and muscular for "Batman." For "American Hustle" Christian Bale gave himself a fat gut. His fat gut takes up about thirty seconds of screen time and Bale could have played the role without it. His gut took me out of the movie. I started thinking, not about the character or the plot, but about Bale's tendency to gain or lose weight for roles. I assume he's pushing for an Oscar. I felt manipulated.

The plot is pretty pointless. A small time conman, Irving (Christian Bale) and his conwoman girlfriend Sydney / Edith (Amy Adams) are recruited by FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) to snag crooked politicians, including the mayor of Camden Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) gets in the way and causes some comic mayhem. Robert DeNiro shows up as a dangerous Mafioso.

The production values are very high. The costumes are outrageous: velvet tuxedos and open shirts revealing hairy chests and gold chains. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are all decked out and paraded like models. In "Night at the Museum 2" Amy Adams wore tight, flesh-colored jodhpurs. Everyone talks about her butt in that movie. In "American Hustle" she wears plunging necklines and slit skirts. Everyone will be talking about her breasts and legs.

The direction is fluid and musical – you feel like you're on an amusing ride. 1970s pop hits make up the soundtrack and action is choreographed to fit the music.

The movie is laugh-out-loud funny, funnier than some films billed as comedies. It's hard to tell what genre the film is meant to be, because there are scenes where characters are obviously in pain.

The audience is conned as well as the characters onscreen. There is a surprise. The surprise felt pretty cheap to me. The surprise was executed not by cleverness, but simply by hiding information from the audience.

The performances are all fun to watch and very strong. Problem for me was that each performance seemed to exist in its own world. Christian Bale is doing comedy and parody. He is mocking the character he plays, and low class conmen in general. Jennifer Lawrence is weak. She is pretty, pouty, and young, but I didn't catch any acting talent. Bradley Cooper, as the FBI agent, is intense and grating in his hyper ambition and lack of smarts and caution. His character never came together for me, never achieved any coherence.

Amy Adams is the heart of the movie. She is fiercely intelligent, deadly, really, in her amorality and her love for her man. The real standout is Jeremy Renner as Camden, NJ, mayor Carmine Polito. Renner is from a completely straight, serious movie. He comes across not as an actor playing a role, but as the "real" Carmine Polito, though Polito is a fictional character based on former Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti.

"American Hustle" depicts conflict between straight, square people who tell the truth and con artists who lie, cheat and steal. As is often the case in Hollywood films, "American Hustle" comes down firmly on the side of con artists. "Everybody's a con artist!" the film wants you to believe. "Everybody lies, cheats, and steals!" Hollywood would take this stance because Hollywood manufactures illusions.

"American Hustle" alters history to make this position believable. "American Hustle" becomes heavy-handed in its insistence on manipulating its audience into liking two characters and disliking a third. Camden's mayor was not the saint the film wants you to think he was, and the real Irving didn't do the kindly things the film depicts him as doing. Camden, NJ, is a horrible place to live. Its population is shrinking. It ranks first in violent crime. Political corruption is rampant. In making a saint out of the mayor of Camden, David O. Russell sticks his Hollywood finger in the eye of New Jersey's poor and crime victims.

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