‘American Hustle’ Mainly Bells and Whistles

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Sometimes in movies it is very apparent the actors had much more fun making the film than the audience has watching it. That pretty much sums up “American Hustle”, the new David O. Russell film with an all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence.

Set in the late 1970’s, the film follows con man Irving and his partner Sydney (Bale and Adams), who are forced to work with an FBI agent (Cooper) and take down politicians in exchange for their own freedom.

The premise of the movie is very intriguing, and could have been something fantastic. People trying to scam the mafia, corrupt Congressmen and other con artists all in one big deal? With a tighter script it might have been like “Goodfellas” meets “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (how’s that for a movie reference?). But instead we get a movie that decides to focus more on its characters, rather than its plot or story arch.

According to Christian Bale, Russell allowed the actors to improvise their lines whenever they felt the desire, even if it changed the plot. This may seem like a creative, fun idea at the time however the end result is the movie lacking solid flow or a true narrative (try and decipher whether this is a drama, comedy or political thriller, because it doesn’t have a clue). It seems like the whole film was just a scene with a punchline or dramatic moment, followed by another scene with a punchline or dramatic moment which is almost unrelated to the previous scene.

All the actors do a fine job, particularly Bale. His dedication to any role he does is admirable, as he gained 40 pounds to play Irving. Bale went from dangerously skinny in “The Machinist” to ripped in “Batman Begins”. He then lost weight again for “The Fighter”, and had to put muscle back on for “The Dark Knight Rises”. Bale is the best part of “Hustle”, as he plays a man who deep down has good intentions but can’t seem to get out of the rut he has put himself into with his scamming.

The rest of the cast is solid, albeit nothing memorable. I’m sure they will all earn their award nominations, however I couldn’t help but get the feeling their roles could be done by anyone, particularly that of Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Bale’s wife. Until the film’s climax she really isn’t anything but an extended cameo, and I just never felt she brought anything special to the table (except that she is Jennifer Lawrence).

There are flashes in “Hustle” that made me think the film would rise above the mediocrity that had so far been presented, but it never does. I’m not sure if it was the pacing or the lack of any true resolution, but I just never got absorbed into its world of 1970’s New Jersey. People disappear from the plot never to be seen again, and others do actions that are just completely out of character and leave you shaking your head wondering why that just happened.

“American Hustle” may have looked good on paper, and it is clear the actors all had a fun time with each other while filming it, but in the end it just feels like a missed opportunity. The ending is clever and some of the dialogue is sharp, but it just doesn’t come together in a pretty bow, which is a disappointment considering the cast. The movie may not be a scam, but it certainly sold itself short.

Critics Rating: 6/10

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