American Hustle Review
The MovieDirector/writer David O. Russell's follow-up to the award-winning Silver Linings Playbook is a more ostentatious affair, looking at a tale of conmen (and women) in New York in the mid-1970's, set against the backdrop of one of the biggest scandals to ever hit American politics.
Small-time swindler Irving Rosenfeld and his mistress Sydney Prosser are very good at what they do, posing as art dealers or investment bankers to part fools from their money, but their scams come to the attention of Richie DiMaso, an FBI desk jockey who's eager for some real action. DiMaso catches them in the act and threatens Sydney with jail unless they agree to work for him, and they start off with snaring local crooks until they graduate to Carmine Polito, the Mayor of Camden, NJ, whose contacts with the Mob open up a dangerous new frontier for DiMaso's operation. Rosalyn, Irving's wife and the last member of this quintet, is the most volatile ingredient in this mix: she's Irving's spouse yet she acts like the kept woman, content to ignore the illegality of his revenue stream as long as he treats her right. But she knows just a bit too much about what he's got himself involved in, and her jealousy of his love for Sydney manifests itself in a way that could undermine the whole show. Big money, big risks, big hair - this is American Hustle.
Based loosely on the infamous Abscam sting operation by the FBI, the script has a few grains of truth in amongst the fiction, which is an apt description for the characters themselves because each of them has a smouldering psychological weakness which drives their unscrupulous schemes. Irving's grifting is a way of life, borne out of seeing his father get hustled when he was a child; Sydney does it for Irving's love in the belief that it'll make her a better person, while the Mayor gets drawn in purely for the good of his constituents, hoping that his dodgy deals will bring jobs and investment to the run-down state of New Jersey. Richie's desperate to make his mark in the Bureau and won't take no for an answer from anyone, not even his superiors, and Rosalyn's settled for Irving because she knows she's getting a good life out of him, using her young son (whom Irving has adopted) as an emotional millstone to keep her husband wedded to her.
Christian Bale took his renowned dedication to his craft to new extremes by adding 40 pounds to his frame and sporting a gloriously elaborate comb-over as Irving (based on real-life conman Mel Weinberg), playing him with equal parts confidence and exasperation as he tries to stop his life and his hair from unravelling. Amy Adams is Sydney, who's always looking to be someone other than herself (pretending to be 'Lady Edith Greensley' as part of the con, complete with 'British' accent) which adds an extra layer of difficulty to the role and Adams handles it very well indeed. Bradley Cooper is excellent as the perenially frustrated DiMaso; work, home, and his life in general are all just one big letdown. Jeremy Renner plays the idealistic Mayor Polito - by all accounts his earnest performance is a good facsimile of former Mayor Angelo Errichetti - and Jennifer Lawrence rounds off the ensemble, doing her best Bronx drawl as the vampish Rosalyn. (A special mention goes to Alessandro Nivola for doing a fine Christopher Walken impression in his small role as prosecutor Anthony Amado.)
David O. Russell's work has long been centred around characters discovering emotional truth, whether it's soldiers searching for gold but finding their humanity in Three Kings, the trippy existential musings of I ♥ Huckabees or the coupling of two wounded souls in Silver Linings Playbook. American Hustle continues in that vein, with every character striving to make themselves better people in spite of the fact that they're damaged goods, but it's a difficult film to connect with on an emotional level precisely because of how shifty the participants are. They're all lying to themselves and/or each other, so how are we as an audience supposed to know which way is up? To be fair, one of the main themes of the film is that we as people are always conning somebody, whether it's our family, our friends or our work colleagues, but that's not enough to redeem the actions of these characters or to make them seem any less unpleasant. Granted, one of them does start to feel pangs of remorse near the end of the show but it's too little too late.
There are also issues regarding uneven tone and pacing. The film crosses paths with gangsters and yet there's no real sensation of threat, while other characters have a more comedic bent to them but there aren't a lot of laughs to be had either. Some scenes play loose and improvisational, especially those with Louis C.K. as DiMaso's boss, while other passages seem more refined and have a definite rhythm to them, like Robert De Niro's classy (and uncredited) cameo as Miami mobster Victor Telleggio. It's deliciously ironic that, given the subject matter, the film itself doesn't seem to know what its true identity is. Are we watching a cool crime caper, a gangster drama, a comedic farce, what? Some would argue that this has always been true of Russell's oeuvre - i.e. we can't simply pigeonhole his movies into one genre and that they've always been more about character than plot - but whatever they are, it helps if the characters are someway likeable to begin with.
The meandering plot doesn't help matters because it tends to let things fizzle out, frittering away whatever dramatic impetus has been built up. What could've been a tense confrontation with some Mob heavies is an almost throwaway moment told in flashback, and the obligatory twist doesn't feel like some grand payoff, it just leads to more questions. Russell usually give his characters something to reach for that's bigger than themselves: in The Fighter we had boxer Mickey Ward becoming world champion and finally realising a life-long dream for his family; in Three Kings there was Major Gates and his men saving some Iraqi refugees, and even Silver Linings had the crucial dance-off at the end. But American Hustle lacks a similarly compelling denouement, and although it may have been crass to have built the story around, say, a heist, having a tangible goal could've given the narrative a stronger sense of direction and focus, not least because it's Russell's longest effort to date at 138 minutes. It's certainly a strong character piece, yet even then it's guilty of having its cake and eating it, for there are so many star names and star performances vying for our attention that it feels more like a series of loosely related vignettes.
In conclusion, American Hustle is a collection of superb individual performances which lack the connective tissue that's required to mold them into a superb movie and, as such, it represents a missed opportunity. The production values are undeniably impressive, evoking the glitz and glamour of the period via vintage costumes and immaculately coiffed hair, not to mention the soundtrack of solid-gold hits. But it's still just window dressing for a very thinly sketched story.
The Blu-rayEntertainment in Video present the film on a Region B locked disc which starts with forced trailers for The Butler, August: Osage County, I, Frankenstein, and Her. They can’t be skipped nor can you go straight to the main menu, but they can be fast-forwarded at least.
Some background: American Hustle was shot on the 2-perf Techniscope format, a widescreen process which only uses half of the 35mm film frame. Often referred to as ‘poor man’s anamorphic’ it creates a slightly rougher, grainier appearance but historically it allowed the budget-conscious filmmaker to shoot a proper 2.35 widescreen image without needing anamorphic lenses. It has fallen out of favour in recent years, having had something of a spiritual successor in Super 35 which took over as the spherical widescreen king. But the Digital Intermediate process has enabled formats like Techniscope and Super 16 to retain the quality which was lost in the old days of optical printing, so filmmakers like Russell, Darren Aronofsky and Steve McQueen are able to use them for genuine aesthetic reasons and not for pure budgetary concerns.
Framed at 2.40 widescreen, the movie was finished at 4K (as is typical for a recent Sony co-production) and it looks fabulous on 1080p Blu-ray. The opening Panorama studio logo shows some noticeable banding but after that there are no such problems with colour gradation. The colour itself is lushly rendered, the image full of golden hues and perma-tanned skintones, though it's nuanced enough so that you can see that Irving's bulging pink belly hasn't spent too much time in the sun. That burnished look doesn't unduly influence the primaries which are good and proud, like the vibrant metallic blue of Irving's Cadillac Eldorado. There's a constant layer of fine grain which is very well managed thanks to a chunky average video bitrate of just under 30 Mb/s (although it spikes noticeably on a zoomed-in shot of De Niro's character which was done in post-production). Fine detail is outstanding, as you can see every curl and split-end in those outrageous hairdos. Blacks are very respectable, delivering excellent shadow detail and providing a solid base for consistent contrast performance. I don't often give perfect scores for video quality, but this is sterling work.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound doesn't overwhelm you with detail. Dialogue is perfectly fine and there's a moderate bass kick to the jukebox soundtrack of '70s standards, though it's a very front-heavy mix. Even when you're in the middle of a crowded metropolis like New York City there's little sense of really being there on the street. There's certainly a low level of ambience, as you'll hear the odd passing car or dog bark coming from around you, but it lacks the enveloping texture heard in more elaborate mixes. Other scenes fare better, like when they're in the club's backroom with Victor Tellegio and the muffled music from the dance floor leaks through as a subtle disembodied undertone. All of this is not unexpected for a David O. Russell film however, as his previous movies share the same sort of unremarkable sound design. With that in mind, the 5.1 track is what it is: a solid performer, but nothing special.
The extras are restricted to a short 'Making of' featurette and 11 Deleted and Extended Scenes, which is an unusually slim haul for a film as over-hyped as this one. That said, the US home video release came along only four months after its general theatrical release, having been expedited to take advantage of the Oscar buzz, meaning that they didn't have much time to prepare a lot of supplements. If the film had subsequently cleaned up at the Academy Awards then a re-release would've been an inevitability, but with no wins from ten nominations I can't see it happening anytime soon. And it's worth noting that we're not missing out on anything with this UK Blu-ray from EiV, because it's essentially a port of Sony's current US Blu-ray.
The 'Making of' has comments from the main actors, the producer and Russell, and although it's only 16 minutes long it doesn't feel like a typical studio puff piece. The director is honest about what the aims of his work are, and the actors talk about how far outside their comfort zones these roles took them. The deleted scenes amount to roughly 22 minutes of extra material, most of which don't add anything significant to the story, although the 'Cry British' scene features a shared moment between Irving and Sydney which is more touching than anything that ended up in the final film. We also get to see the original version of Rosalyn's vengeful housework scene, scored to Santana's Evil Ways instead of Wings' Live and Let Die (though we get the full version of the latter too).
OverallAmerican Hustle isn't as good a film as it thinks it is, trading in what could've been an engaging narrative for a disjointed compendium of character studies, but there's some fine filmmaking craft on display nonetheless. The Blu-ray features magnificent video quality with decent audio and some short yet interesting extras. It's worth a rental, especially if you're feeling nostalgic for the warm glow of the 1970's.
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