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

"AMERICAN HUSTLE (re-review)"

American Hustle

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is: “Have you ever changed your mind about a film?” The answer is no. Sure, there are movies I liked as a child/teenager that I don't like now, just as there are films I didn't understand growing up that I now see great value in. That's just maturity. But in the years I've been working as a critic, my opinion has only changed a few degrees at most. For example, when I saw Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski back in 1998, I liked it, but felt it was a big comedown from their previous effort, Fargo. Watching it again on DVD some fifteen years later, it immediately became one of my all-time favorite comedies. Lebowski just played differently – better – the second time. Here's another example: I disliked the theatrical cut of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, but enjoyed the Blu-Ray director's cut that reinstated previously excised, essential footage. That sort of thing happens infrequently, but it does happen.

That brings us to our point. Back in December, I posted a mixed-to-negative review of David O. Russell's American Hustle, a film that has a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I was one of the other 8%. My review got a wide range of responses. About half of the emails I received were from people who agreed with me; one of them even thanked me for going against the critical grain. The other half were from readers who felt I'd missed the point. I even got one invective-filled email from a self-proclaimed “award-winning journalist,” who threatened to write a piece “exposing” me as a fraud for not liking the film. (I'm still waiting for that.) Perhaps the email that affected me most, though, was the one from a reader who implored me to see American Hustle again. She was certain I'd like it better a second time.

It struck a chord because I knew the problem was not with Russell's film, but with me. I even said so in my original review, which you can read right here. “American Hustle is not a bad film,” I wrote. “Maybe the problem is just me. Perhaps the style of [the film] is simply not my thing.” I'd expected to love the movie. Russell is one of my favorite filmmakers, and it has a cast of actors whose work I uniformly adore. That I walked away disappointed was heartbreaking. The questions lingered. Could that reader be correct? Is it possible that the day I first saw American Hustle - when I'd attended my son's preschool Christmas party immediately beforehand, and when I was tired from not getting enough sleep the night before, and when I was a little stressed about having sold our house without having found a new one to move into – I had somehow failed to “get” it? This weighed on my mind for weeks. Today, I decided to take that reader up on her offer. I went to see American Hustle again.

And you know what? I was wrong.

Lest you think I merely talked myself into liking the film upon second viewing, allow to me say that I pinpointed exactly why it didn't work for me the first time. As I wrote in my first review, Russell uses incongruity heavily in American Hustle. Things counterpoint other things, or seemingly play against each other. I somehow missed the biggest incongruity of all – the fact that the story is deliberately over-the-top in one sense, yet incredibly nuanced in another. In the film's first twenty minutes, there is voiceover narration that provides hints as to the characters' mentalities and motivations. Onscreen, we see more overtly outrageous stuff, like swirling camera movements, Christian Bale's weird combover, Bradley Cooper's ultra-tight perm, and Amy Adams' plunging neckline. Simply put, I got so caught up in the visual aspect that I didn't register the information the voiceover was meant to convey. Without that grasp on where the characters were coming from, the rest of the story never seemed to fit together. “Russell is dealing with a 'big' topic,” I wrote, “yet calling attention to silly details that undermine the dramatic thrust of the story.” On my second viewing, I picked up on all the necessary connections and – what do you know? - the quirky character stuff suddenly seemed to add a ton of depth to the plot. I could see that everyone in this movie is scamming everyone else. That Bradley Cooper's FBI agent somehow falls in love with the art of the con and gets sloppy with it. That Jennifer Lawrence's character wasn't there just for comic relief, but to show that the dysfunctional person on the sidelines is the most adroit con artist of them all.

I still maintain that not everything works. Although both give great performances, Lawrence and Jeremy Renner strike me as being about a decade too young to play their parts. (Renner's character is supposed to have several near-grown children.) A few of the broader moments would have been even more effective had they been toned down slightly. Still, my revisit of American Hustle was a vastly different experience. I laughed in places where I failed to laugh the first time, because I now understood the nuances of the characters. The complexity of the con being pulled off felt fuller and more involving. The theme – that we all con ourselves to get through life, as Bale's character says in that voiceover – had far more resonance. I see now that the movie is beautifully, inventively constructed, and filled with rich performances that are perfectly calibrated to the offbeat tone Russell was going for.

In the end, it's time for the critic to review himself. I got it wrong the first time I wrote about American Hustle. What can I say? I'm human, and reviewing movies is not a perfect science. Allow this re-review to stand as an official correction. This is a terrific film – funny, smart, and delightfully twisted. I loved it, and hereby award it a new rating to reflect that:

( 1/2 out of four)

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