American Hustle, tadalafil director David O. Russell’s tale of con artists and corruption in the disco era, has a first-class cast, gorgeous production values and directorial ambition to burn. Since its premiere earlier this month, it’s attracted favorable critical attention, increasing awards buzz and healthy returns at the box office.
If it only had a brain.
Russell scored a knockout last year with Silver Linings Playbook, a quirky romance that artfully skated the tricky area between importance and triviality, thanks in large part to a talented collection of actors unafraid to embrace the script’s whimsically mannered characterizations. With American Hustle he’s attempting the same trick, but this time he’s missed the mark. Though the new film’s actors have characters to play that are at least equally vivid, there’s just nothing of importance to the film they inhabit.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as a pair of swindlers who are pressured by an overeager FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) into conducting an ambitious sting loosely based on the real-life Abscam operation of the late ‘70s. Originally aimed at entrapping politicians into being caught taking bribes, the scheme becomes increasingly complex and dangerous as murderous underworld figures are drawn into the con. It’s a classic noir set-up, with our grifting protagonists trapped between the law and the mob…but Russell is too busy straining for cheap laughs and creating flashy set pieces to make us care about what happens next.
In retrospect, there’s a strong enough structure to it all, but, curiously, while it’s unspooling it seems to be a disjointed mess. So much attention is directed to the garish period costumes, hairstyles and what comes to feel like a relentless parade of songs from the ‘70s and earlier, that the story seems constantly pushed to the background and its characters rendered inconsequential.
It doesn’t help that Bale’s and Adams’ characters have been written in a minor key; they’re professional con artists, but they’re strictly petty crooks pulling off tacky crimes – and Bale’s performance in particular is so understated and colorless that he brings little of his usual charisma to any of his scenes. Adams is given little more to work with, but she does manage to add a hint of mystery to her underwritten character. Of all the other main cast members, only Jeremy Renner as the New Jersey mayor who’s the target of the federal sting delivers a recognizably human and relatable performance. Everyone else is a caricature of one kind or another, talented actors trapped in a series of scenes with little more art or depth than a Saturday Night Live sketch.
It would be easier to simply shrug and accept the film as a lavishly produced misfire if it weren’t so full of itself. It’s hard to escape the sense that Russell is bending over backwards to out-Scorcese Scorcese, trying hard to channel the look and ambience of works like Casino and Goodfellas…a comparison that proves not only unflattering but quickly annoying. In a movie so shallow that it draws its biggest laughs from two separate moments of poking fun at its leading mens’ hair, there’s little room for such pretension.
In recent years, the loudmouth New Jerseyite has replaced the Southern redneck as the stock comic stereotype du jour, and Russell’s film is filled with them. Of all the cast members, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s loose-cannon wife most successfully makes the characterization work, though it’s at the cost of transforming herself into a cartoon character. Everyone else seems to fall short of the mark; the self-conscious dialogue falls so uncomfortably from their lips that they seem less Scorcese-like – or even Russell-like – than members of a road show production of Guys and Dolls.
Like many films about con artists, there are occasional moments here with little twists intended to make the audience wonder how they couldn’t have seen it coming. Your mileage may vary as to how successful those are, but don’t expect anything as clever as such gold-standard examples as The Sting or The Grifters. The biggest con pulled off by American Hustle is the one it’s pulling on anyone who buys a ticket expecting anything special, let alone anything they haven’t seen done better before.
All is Lost – filmpalast
There’s a reason for all the glowing reviews and Oscar talk that have greeted All is Lost since its recent premiere: It’s really that good, no rx really that inspiring, order really that impressive.
The same goes for star Robert Redford, who at age 77 is experiencing the kind of third-act triumph of which most actors can only dream. His performance as the film’s unnamed hero is rock solid, as exemplary a display of underplaying as you’ll find anywhere in American cinema. Always an admirably authentic actor, these days – just as his golden matinee-idol looks have been slowly blasted by wind and sun into a rugged expressionistic version of his former beauty – his minimalist strength seems to have been boiled down to the essence of absolute truth.
Redford plays a man who’s sailing his yacht in the Indian Ocean when a collision with a drifting shipping container transforms his solo voyage into a series of disasters. There’s an ugly gouge in the hull, his electronics have been flooded, a devastating storm is sweeping toward him, and there’s nothing standing between survival and destruction except his own persistence and ingenuity.
He has plenty of each, and it’s fascinating to watch as he methodically tackles one problem after another, doing his best to remain on-task and unflappable; like a man quietly determined to maintain order, he continues to cook and clean in between making repairs and even finds the time to shave. His illusion of order slowly comes apart as the situation continues to deteriorate…but no matter how bad things become, he accepts the constantly-changing status quo and looks for solutions for each new problem.
This is clearly a man of means – he owns a yacht, after all, loaded with expensive survival gear – but it becomes clear that his best chance of staying alive lies not with the pricey toys he’s bought, but from within himself. It can be argued that director J.C. Chandor is making a quiet statement about the moral superiority of humanism over commercialism – note the contents of the shipping container that precipitates the film’s crisis, and the obliviousness of commercial cargo ships to the desperate plight of a man struggling to stay alive.
For all his quiet resourcefulness and grace under pressure, the film’s hero is never painted as perfect. The opening voice-over (virtually the only spoken words in the entire picture) suggests that he’s a family man who’s taken this voyage to sort out some serious problems of his own making, and it’s entirely possible that the initial collision could have been avoided if he’d paid more attention to the business of sailing instead of spending time inside his own head. An old-fashioned story of survival that evokes Jack London and Hemingway – and, for that matter, this year’s equally stunning Gravity – All is Lost is a stripped-down and gripping drama about a man whose determined fight for his life becomes an object lesson in acceptance. It’s a fine and memorable piece of work, just possibly the one film that will be remembered and cherished above everything else to hit the big screen this year.