American Hustle review: Did we get hustled?

Andrew Marvin, Contributing Writer

Usually, when a movie like “American Hustle” gets as much praise as it does, I’ll look for reasons to love it. To my credit, I really tried. I tried to look past the half-baked subplots, the lifeless direction, and the cheap laughs. I tried to see what was at the core of this movie and eventually I did: nothing. There’s no life in this movie, and for the first time in my life I came to regret spending $14 on a David O. Russell film. This is not a bad movie, but it is not a good one. It rides the fine line of mediocrity, and though it occasionally tips towards either greatness or awfulness, it never falls. In the end, it is just forgettable.

Here is where I would summarize the story, if only there were a story to summarize. “American Hustle” is supposedly about the FBI-directed Abscam operation that took place in the late 70s and early 80s. Like too many modern crime films, the proceedings are overcomplicated to the point where the myriad subplots don’t seem to serve any purpose aside from stretching out an already bloated story. I was looking forward to seeing this movie partly because its screenplay made the Hollywood Blacklist several years ago, which is a compilation of the best un-produced scripts around. Not much here stands out aside from the catchy title and an occasional slapstick scene. The rest is devoted to fleshing out character development that goes nowhere.

At least those characters are played well by a talented cast. Four of the five principles are fantastic. Christian Bale plays a greasy, overweight con artist in one of his more bizarre bodily transformations, and though he is not given much to do besides spout monologues about “the good old American hustle” (a phrase that comes up far too often to clumsily hammer in the theme) it is great fun to watch him taking the role of 2013’s scummiest protagonist. Amy Adams plays his partner and functions as the emotional core of the film–she slowly falls apart due to the weight of her self-deception and ends up losing herself in the people she pretends to be. Jeremy Renner turns in a great performance as a corrupt, well-meaning mayor, though he is underused. Bradley Cooper has the slightest character arc and is consequently the most interesting cast member to watch as a screaming, domineering, coked-up FBI agent trying to make a name for himself. And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence, turning in a performance as disappointing as it is overrated. Unable to hold her accent for more than 30 seconds at a time, she tries to fit a role for which she is vastly unsuited.

The problem with her performance is the one that plagues the rest of the movie: it’s far too self-assured. Russell’s films usually buzz with live-wire, musical energy; “American Hustle” stagnates in a pool of its own self-importance. People talk to each other in nondescript rooms in every single scene. It’s as if Martin Scorsese tried to direct a script written by Woody Allen about the subject matter of David Mamet … but badly. Russell’s dramatic comedies often succeed due to how well they balance out the laughs and the tears, but here the silly haircuts elicit more laughs than the script, and boredom elicits more tears than the characters.

“American Hustle” is oddly unremarkable, considering the wealth of talent behind it. Its critical hype is wholly uncalled-for, but I can understand why everyone bought into it: the talent, the trailers, the title, and the subject matter geared the Hype Machine up to stratospheric heights. Maybe nobody wants to admit that they’ve wasted their money or maybe I’m just not getting something. Maybe we’re all just victims of the hustle.

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