Hammering Out… American Hustle

Hammering Out… American Hustle

Hammering Out... is a series of movie reviews featuring a lively he said/she said discussion between John and Julie.  This week: American Hustle.

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Julie: Not American Hutsell, the unauthorized Melanie Hutsell biopic I was told we'd be seeing.

American Hustle is the shiny new thing that all the critics are excited about. They're like magpies. "Ooh! Fruitvale Station! Wait no, Gravity. We like Gravity! I'm sorry Gravi-what? Twelve Years a Slave is the movie!" The boards of review and the critics associations have no memory beyond what happened last week. If the studios had waited to release After Earth until Christmas Day, I guarantee we'd be talking about Jaden Smith taking Robert Redford's spot in the Best Actor race.

So, anyway, American Hustle is the movie we're all supposed to be fawning over now because David O. Russell! And Katniss! Katniss is in it! And Batman. They're all there.

And the movie just falls flat. It left me cold. There was no tension. I didn't give one damn about any of the characters. Christian Bale sounded like he was trying to do his best De Niro impersonation. Jennifer Lawrence was playing (play-acting, really) a character too old for her age. She was like the sophomore in high school who's asked to play Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. She knows her lines by heart and she says 'em real well, I'm just not buying her as this character.

And the rest of them -- Bale and Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams and De Niro (he cameos) -- they've all worked with Russell before, and their familiarity calls to mind Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon popping up on Saturday Night Live. "We're so entertaining…for ourselves. Look at all the things we can do to make ourselves laugh! Look at Christian Bale with his combover and fat body! He's so method. Look at Bradley Cooper with the curls! Let's make sure to give him a 'he's getting a perm' scene so that we can really drive home the fact that this is a character quirk we can and should poke fun at. Empathy be damned!"

And that's kind of how the whole movie played out, with this sense of ironic detachment that only resulted in me not giving two figs what happened to any of these people.

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JOHN: First off, JT and Fallon rule when they appear together.  Second, I would pay anything NOT to see the unauthorized Melanie Hutsell biopic.  SNL cast members aside, I think there are clear reasons why critics have gone gaga over American Hustle.  I mean, it's a great looking film.  Excellent '70s period detail - the art direction and costumes are top notch.  Especially Amy Adams' costumes - wow.  They made her look GOOD.  If there was an Oscar for excellent side boobage, she would win.

Excuse me, I digress.  Let's elevate the conversation.  I thought the acting was strong.  Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence are quickly becoming to Russell what Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson are to Wes Anderson.  He knows how to direct them, and they know how to play in the worlds he creates.  And, while we're on Russell, I think he gets stronger as a director every year.  Many of the scenes in American Hustle have great flair and energy.  Sure, he's aping Scorsese to a degree, and it plays that way, but I think the movie was very well-directed.  He chose some fun music too.

All that being said, I agree with you.  The story never really pulled me in.  The movie is kind of an odd duck.  It's light in tone, and kind of jokey, but not really funny.  I wouldn't say I was ever bored, per se, but I wasn't that entertained either.  It occupies this weird middle ground that just proved rather unsatisfying.  As good as all those other elements were, and I can certainly appreciate them on that level, I couldn't really care about the movie.

American Hustle

JULIE: Amy Adams's outfits should, however, not win any "best supporting" awards, if you catch my drift.

I'll give you that the directing, style-wise, was good. American Hustle is a very stylish film. I also think it's interesting that you bring up both Scorsese and Wes Anderson here (seeing as both of them came up in our conversation while leaving the theater). One thing Scorsese does is bring high stakes to his films. There's a rise and fall. There's tension and urgency. There's danger, whether physical or emotional. I felt none of that here. And that may have had something to do with the fact that every single person in this film (except maybe the kid and Jeremy Renner) was hustling every other person in this film. It was hard to tell what was truth and what was a lie when motivations and feelings changed on a dime and may or may not have been bullshit.

Wes Anderson is another director who uses quirky costumes and stylized looks in his film, but they're never acknowledged. It's just the way it is, and Wes Anderson respects the characters for all their quirks. I think that was part of my problem with the stunty styling in American Hustle. The hair, everything, was played for laughs, almost as if the actors and filmmakers were making fun of the characters. If the people playing the parts couldn't even be bothered to care about the people in this film, then how could I be expected to do so?

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

JOHN: Well, I think that's a major problem with the movie.  I don't think you'll be the only one to think that.  The movie has a lot of audience-friendly elements, but they don't all come together into something pleasing and memorable.  One of those elements is Jennifer Lawrence.  You already talked about her "play-acting," and I completely agree.  Look, she's a great actress, and she does a swell job here, but she needs to choose roles more her age.  As good as she is, I don't believe her character for a second.  Her role needed a more seasoned actress - someone at least 5 years older.  Just because you can cast Lawrence doesn't mean you should.

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out over awards season.  I think it pales in comparison to heavyweights like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.  But, it is pretty incredible that Russell has become such an Oscar perennial in the last 3 years.  Regardless of how we liked the movie, I think it has been well-received and there's no denying that the guy has found his groove.

JULIE: That's very true that Jennifer Lawrence needs to start picking her roles more wisely. Yes, she's talented. Yes, she probably loves working with David O. Russell (who evidently loves working with her). In that case, I'd love to see him hand her a role that was actually meant for a woman in her early 20s.

When it comes right down to it, with all of my reservations, I have to give this film one out of three possible Deltas.

JOHN: Now that's a callback!  I'm torn between 2.5 or 3 out of 5.  But, my gut reaction is 2.5.  Certainly not as good as the 95% rotten tomatoes score would suggest.

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