The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


American Hustle

David O. Russell has carved out an exemplary career making movies about quirky people. Impressively, he's been able to adapt his distinctive style to many genres: comedy (Flirting with Disaster), war (Three Kings), inspirational sports drama (The Fighter), and rom-com (Silver Linings Playbook). Russell's latest film, American Hustle, finds him taking on a period crime-related story that feels reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and many of the works of Martin Scorsese. Despite a great premise and one of the most exciting casts a director could assemble, the match between genre and filmmaker doesn't quite mesh.

Inspired by the ABSCAM scandal, American Hustle stars Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist who works in tandem with his girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). An FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) busts them in a sting and, recognizing their shared talent, forces the couple to work for him setting up other people. One of their targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who wants to revitalize Atlantic City. Although generally a good man, he's willing to skirt legalities to get the job done. Going after Polito leads to other politicians with dirty hands, and a few members of the mafia, as well. But behind the scenes, things get complicated. Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and she's none too thrilled about Sydney. Because he won't leave his wife, Sydney begins getting cozy with Richie, just to make him jealous. And, of course, the question of who's conning whom looms ever present.

To be honest, I'm heartbroken that I didn't love this movie. As somebody who respects everyone involved with it, I approached American Hustle with great anticipation. My issue is essentially one of tone. ABSCAM was a fairly complex deal. Making a film based on it would seem to necessitate some tight plotting and a thorough exploration of the factors that comprised it. Russell, however, uses the subject largely as a springboard to examine quirky characters. The two things cancel each other out; all the offbeat character material renders the sting operation little more than a lark (when, in fact, it had significant repercussions), and the weight of the historical event feels too heavy for the levity with which American Hustle treats its central figures.

While by no means a conventional comedy, the movie absolutely goes just a little too over the top, to an often distracting degree. For example, most of the actors are trapped – and their characters defined - by their physical appearances. Bale has a spare tire and a ridiculously bad combover. Cooper sports the tightest perm in the history of tight perms. Lawrence has big hair and a comical New Yawk accent. At times, it feels as though we're watching footage of big stars attending a '70s-themed costume party. (Amy Adams gives the best, most detailed performance, perhaps because she is mostly spared from being made to look tacky.) Period detail is one thing; exaggerating the period detail is something else altogether. Again, it's a matter of tone. Russell is dealing with a “big” topic, yet calling attention to silly details that undermine the dramatic thrust of his story.

Here's another example: during a fairly serious third-act plot escalation, American Hustle stops for a scene in which Lawrence lip syncs the old Wings song “Live and Let Die.” This occurs at a moment when things are in the balance and we want to see how they play out. The film, on the other hand, wants to emphasize for the umpteenth time how eccentric Rosalyn is. On a related note, the film's use of music is another instance of its self-consciousness. Era-appropriate pop songs are frequently used to oppose what we're seeing on screen. Heavy moments are scored with frivolous tunes.

Mixing a weighty subject with off-kilter characterization can work – and it has in other films. It doesn't work here, though. If Russell wanted to make a con artist comedy, he should have emphasized the satiric elements a lot more, and possibly created a fictional scandal rather than using a real one. If he wanted to make an AMSCAM drama, he should have toned down the movie's endless Look at me! flourishes and tightened the pace. His attempt to treat the material with constant incongruousness is admirable, whether successful or not. Doing so constitutes a big filmmaking risk. It's also the kind of thing that can yield mixed results. American Hustle is not a bad film. Not at all. Parts of it are funny, and parts of it are compelling. The performances, as you'd expect from this cast, are interesting. That said, the mannered feel of the movie will cause it to strike out with as many viewers as it connects with.

I fully intend to see this film again at some point. I cannot accept that so many people whose work I cherish failed to deliver magic. Or maybe the problem is just me. Perhaps the style of American Hustle is simply not my thing. I'm hoping that an eventual second viewing will allow it to settle in a little more, possibly even bringing out an initially hard-to-see method to its bizarre approach. All I know for now is that my first viewing left me disappointed and frustrated.

( 1/2 out of four)

American Hustle is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. The running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes.

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