Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle is one of this Oscar season's big contenders for the crown, and everybody seems to be loving it. It's made by David O. Russell, who's been on a hot streak with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, it's got an all-star cast of people at the top of their careers, and it's a throwback to the 1970s, the greatest decade of American cinema. And to be fair to the people who are currently praising this film as the second coming of GoodFellas, it is a gorgeous film on both a visual level and a technical one. The entire cast brings their A-game, it's wonderfully shot, and Russell absolutely excels at capturing the feel of the '70s. The script is witty and hilarious, in a manner akin to last month's The Wolf of Wall Street. And yet, as I left the theater, I couldn't help but wonder what all the hype was about. While this was a beautiful, glamorous film, the entire affair felt empty, lacking in anything interesting to say about its characters or that time period like the films it so desperately wants to imitate. It arguably has more in common with last year's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a film that is nothing but shine to cover up its lack of any kind of soul that isn't cribbed from other, better films.

Now, none of this is to say that this is a bad film. Far from it, in fact. The cast that Russell picked out is amazing, for one. Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence are all Russell veterans, and every one of them is dazzling. This is an acting showcase for the entire cast, and you won't see me complaining about the fact that all four of the lead actors I just mentioned received Oscar nominations for this film. Nor will I complain about the fact that this film has a great sense of humor. It helped that I was seeing this with my dad and his girlfriend, who were both very game for the film's jokes, but even then, I was laughing my ass off on many, many occasions. After Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell once more shows that he is exceptionally well-suited to smart, witty comedy. After a year that was shamefully dry on big laughs at the multiplex, going into an award-bait movie like this and laughing so hard was a welcome breath of fresh air. Why can't more "Oscar movies" be like this and The Wolf of Wall Street, capable of producing big belly laughs on top of their weighty subject matter?

But at the end of the day, I had to judge this film in the category that it was fighting in. Silver Linings Playbook, Russell's last film, had no pretensions beyond being a fun romantic comedy, and while it was a lightweight film, it knew what it was and knocked it out of the park. American Hustle, however, has bigger ideas. It constantly wants to stretch its wings and be like the great crime capers of '70s New Hollywood, films like The French Connection, Ronin, Chinatown, and Dog Day Afternoon. Unfortunately, it consistently fails to deliver, often too enamored with imitating the style of those films as opposed to the substance that made them last as classics to this day. The main characters are one-dimensional and see little growth over the course of the film, and many major plot points are treated as mere setups to gags and fun '70s references rather than feeling like they advanced the story and characters in any meaningful way. Many parts of this film work brilliantly, but Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer never manage to find a way to glue it all together and make a cohesive whole out of it.

Score: 3 out of 5

At the end of the day, the result of all the above is that American Hustle is a very fun and well-made caper, but one that pales in comparison to the films it so desperately wants to imitate. I give it my firm recommendation, but only if you go in expecting a light crime comedy as opposed to anything more.

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