Sunday, March 23, 2014

"American Hustle": Hustled Out Of The Price Of Admission

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

There are some things in this world that I will never understand: why sentient life came into existence; why the taste of Nutella never gets old; why critics were so in love with American Hustle.  I’m not much of a scientist or a food critic, but I do know movies, and the appeal of American Hustle is just painfully lost on me.  It’s a soulless flick that features some nice set design and costuming, but it doesn’t amount to much more than a showcase for recreating the feel of the 1970s.

The story follows a couple of con artists, portrayed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who have been entrapped by the FBI into working for them in order catch some corrupt politicians.  The premise sounds like it has a lot of promise, and the acting in this movie isn’t half bad.  Bale is about as competent as he usually is, playing a con artist who has conned himself out of having meaningful relationships in his life, and Adams adequately fills her role as being emotionally torn between her con work and her various other loves.  Bradley Cooper plays the vain and egotistical FBI agent in charge of the two con artists, and Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s clueless, yet relatable wife.  Now, I won’t say that the actors don’t do a bad job in their roles.  In fact, for the material that they are given to work with, all four do a pretty good job.  They portray the right emotions at the right times, and there’s an intensity there that works to each of their credit.  The only one I wasn’t totally on board with was Adams, but that has more to do with the fact that she serves as a whole lot of eye candy with a stand-offish personality than a fully realized character.  That said, all four of these performers were nominated for acting awards at this year’s Oscars; none of them deserved to be.

But that isn’t entirely their fault.  After all, you could have Daniel Day-Lewis guest star on an episode of Family Guy, but that doesn’t mean that Family Guy’s writing is going to be made any better by his presence.  This movie’s plot is an absolute mess.  It just doesn’t know what it wants to be.  The set-up seems perfect for a classy con job film, rife with intricate plotting to a strong twist-filled pay off at the end.  The film instead decides to become a character drama, focusing on the flaws and inner turmoil of some pretty shallow characters.  The weird thing is, it doesn’t even do that well.  The film perpetually forces its characters to say how they’re feeling as they emote, but that breaks the very first rule of film as a storytelling medium; show, don’t tell. 

But then we get all these strange subplots about a fake Arabic sheik, the FBI agent’s humiliated boss, and getting tied up with the mob.  There was a point in the middle of the movie where I had to ask myself what the hell I was watching and mentally track my way from the beginning of the film to the present, and when I got to the end of the movie, I realized that nothing in that intense plot tracking mattered.  The film ends on a terribly clich├ęd and predictable note, which I would have been fine with if the plot hadn’t meandered so long in getting there.  I felt cheated out of a tight, well-told story because the director decided all his side-plots were more important.

The only thing that I can really praise the film for is the set design, which feels very much like the 70s exploded a swath of yellows and browns at the height of the era's uniquely classy style.  I also found the costuming very well done… on the men.  If using two strips of fabric to make a dress that is designed to show as much breast as possible, and then using that as the basis for every dress worn through the entire film will get one nominated for costume design awards, well, I may just have a career in fashion.  Or in porn.  It felt incredibly jarring to see the women dressed up in outfits that exploited their bodies, whereas the men were dressed in classy suits that emphasized the style of the times.

Overall though, I can’t say that it’s a bad film.  It just isn’t a good one.  The acting is on par for the confusing and tortuous script, and the directing is competent if the editing isn’t.  I just can’t understand how American Hustle was such a darling at the Oscars this year.  Maybe it’s something I’m not meant to understand though.  Like why people watch Family Guy.

So what do you think?  Can you tell me why this is one of the greatest films of the past year?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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