Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Man on Film: American Hustle

Coming after The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook in David O. Russell's body of work, it was hard to not have high expectations for American Hustle. As a result (and the subsequent innumerable accolades and nominations heaped upon it cannot help for those who have yet to see American Hustle), American Hustle was at least a little disappointing.

That isn't to say American Hustle wasn't good. It is just a victim of its high expectations.

In essence, American Hustle is an acting showcase. From the principal cast to supporting cast members like Robert DeNiro, Elisabeth Rohm, Michael Pena, Louis C.K., and the Boardwalk Empire cameo crew (Jack Huston and the inimitable Shea Whigham), this was an opportunity for actors to shine, regardless of their line count. And as Russell's films virtually guarantee, shine they do.

And while the supporting cast is rock solid, the principle cast is outstanding. Jeremy Renner gets to shine as a faithful family man and politician who actually wants to provide for his constituents. Bradley Cooper turns in a wonderfully complex role, imbuing Richie DiMaso with every bit of obsessiveness, self-pity, egotism, and volatility that it required. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are both fantastic and get to make themselves comfortable in these wildly unpredictable and wholly colorful roles. And Christian Bale? Holy shit. Once again, Bale shows that he belongs in that very short list of actors who turn in must-watch performances every damn time. He is brilliant once again, and his brilliance goes far past his physical commitment to the role. Bale disappears into the role of Irving Rosenfeld. He was given a role wrought with pathos, a duality of supreme confidence and insecurity that is thrilling to behold.

After all of this discussion of the stellar acting, it would be a disservice to those working behind the scenes to fail to talk about the production design, wardrobe, and art direction. The painstaking attention to detail that went into realizing the world of this film was obvious in every frame of the film. The uniformity in style and full realization of late-'70s New York/New Jersey is special.

As usual, David O. Russell has crafted a well-directed film. It is hard to argue with the performances or the mise-en-scene. The narrative, however, was just a little lacking in the oomph that his recent films have had. The story in American Hustle was fun but ultimately insubstantial. The richness of characters goes a long way towards helping to remedy this shortcoming, but American Hustle is not a movie that stays with you for more than an hour or so after you walk out of the theater. With a David O. Russell film, this is sort of something that I had come to expect.

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