Now Playing: ‘Hustle’ and… No

I’ve been a fan of director David O. Russell since I fell head over heels for ‘Three Kings‘. I loved that he gained Oscar traction in 2010 with ‘The Fighter‘, and believe that he truly deserved the Best Picture statue for last year’s ‘Silver Linings Playbook‘. Yet I can’t help feeling that his latest, ‘American Hustle’, is a sloppily thrown-together mess.

Previously titled ‘American Bullshit’, the film is very loosely based on the true story of a con man (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend/partner (Amy Adams), who were busted by the feds (led by Bradley Cooper) and forced into setting up a sting on a corrupt politician (Jeremy Renner). The movie kicks off with a great set-up for the characters. We see how Bale and Adams meet, fall in love and become partners. It’s actually kind of sweet – that is, until we learn that Bale’s character is married and that he adopted his wife’s kid. We start to feel bad for his unsuspecting wife (Jennifer Lawrence), until we see her in action. You see, right when we start to believe that Bale’s character is an asshole for cheating on her, we discover that Lawrence’s character is just as conniving and manipulative. As I watched, I kept thinking of that line from ‘Spaceballs’: “I’m surrounded by assholes!”

Once the plot starts building, ‘American Hustle’ begins to get complicated. I’m fine with complex storylines, but if they’re muddled and undefined, the complexity becomes a nuisance. Sadly, that’s the problem with this movie. It’s messy and convoluted. The tone is inconsistent, as is the way we’re made to feel about each character. Jennifer Lawrence absolutely knocks it out of the park with her performance – she’s earned my vote for Best Supporting Actress – but Russell just can’t figure out how he wants us to feel about her. At times, she’s made out to be the bad guy. Yes, her husband is cheating on her, but she doesn’t seem to love him anyway, so that doesn’t matter. Then, halfway through the film, the tables turn and she’s made out to be the sympathetic victim. A short time later, she turns yet again and we’re made to write her off. These flip-flops not only occur with character portrayals, but with the film’s tone. For example, we’ll laugh, it gets serious, another joke tries to make us laugh again, but given the seriousness, it’s not funny. Instead, that second joke is extremely unfitting and makes ‘American Hustle’ feel like an amateur affair. This happens over and over again, a few times occurring during crucial moments.

I walked into ‘American Hustle’ expecting it to be the best film of the year. Sadly, it’s not. It’s a mess. The performances are fantastic, especially Lawrence and Adams, and the overall style is great, but the wonky editing and the uneven pace and tone ruin it. Aside from Lawrence’s remarkable role, it’s forgettable. David O. Russell has hustled us. There are plenty of other films out this holiday that are much more worthy of your time and money than ‘American Hustle’.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


  1. Drew

    I completely disagree. Moreover, Luke’s opinion is clearly a minority one. 95% of critics, nationwide, certainly don’t feel like this film is a “mess.”

    If you’re a big fan of ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, you will love ‘American Hustle’.

    Luke, I’m not saying you’re wrong, or questioning your opinion. I just understood the structure of the plot, in a completely different fashion. I also believe that most people who have enjoyed Russell’s previous films will find a lot to like in ‘American Hustle’.

    • Elizabeth

      Drew, I completely disagree with your disagreement. I agree with Luke about this movie. For the record, I really liked “Silver Linings Playbook” but feel indifferent about this movie. I guess part of the blame goes to the trailer; the trailer made this film look like it was going to be a fun film. But this movie was really anything but fun, mostly it was long and tedious. I really didn’t know where it was going and I didn’t really care either. For a while, it was fun seeing these people play very different characters then they usually do, but that fun doesn’t last very long.

  2. Drew

    I’m with you, Shannon. I saw it again today. It’s outstanding! Definitely one of the year’s 5 best.

    The most shocking thing that Luke says is that the plot is convoluted. It’s an extremely straightforward, and almost simplistic plot. I’m surprised that Luke got lost and didn’t understand it. His statements about Jennifer Lawrence’s character are also bizarre. There were no inconsistencies, or back-and-forths with that character, at all.

    • Luke Hickman

      I got it; I simply didn’t like it.

      Regarding Jennifer Lawrence and the character inconsistencies – SPOILER ALERT – when we first meet her, we feel bad for her. Then we see how manipulative she is, and don’t care that Bale is cheating on her. But when we get to the Atlantic City mob scene, we start to feel bad for her. We not only sympathize with her, but we empathize for her. All of the scenes surrounding her and Amy Adams made me, personally, ache for her. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t hate these scenes. In fact, I LOVED them – but I felt that they made us look at her in a wishy-washy light. Was it not heartbreaking when she broke down in the restroom and cries on the shoulder of the first person outside? How could you root for the Bale/Adams relationship after that? And therein lies the problem – the emotion of that scene was completely undone by everything that Lawrence’s character did after that.

      I had a very hard time connecting with or caring for any of there characters outside that Lawrence moment and the Bale/Adams introduction to the film. I loved those two elements, but was made to dislike them outside of those two scenes.

      I’ve noticed that ‘American Hustle’ is a pretty polarizing film. The New York Film Critics Circle praised it, but that’s not the case everywhere. For example, the only nomination that it received from the Utah Film Critics Association (in which both Aaron Peck and I are voting members) was a supporting actress one for Lawrence. It seems like it’s getting pure praise or simple “meh” responses – nothing in between. It’ll be interesting to see where it ends up.

      For me, the best criminally corrupt and debauchery-filled film of the year is The Wolf of Wall Street. 🙂

      • Isn’t the whole point of the movie, though, that everyone is not what they appear to be?

        I still think ’12 Years a Slave’ is your likely Best Picture winner (the Academy likes to reward ‘important’ movies, and AMERICAN HUSTLE doesn’t fit that mold), but that doesn’t mean this isn’t the better movie…Awards seasons are filled with lesser movies beating better ones just because they’re ‘statement’ films (I’m sure everyone remembers the year DANCES WITH WOLVES beat GOODFELLAS).

  3. I have to agree. I expected to like this movie more than I did. for me, it didn’t have a natural flow, and felt like several vignettes loosely tied together. I’d still recommend it for the look and feel, and the overall performance of Christian Bale, and the the almost certain Oscar nominated performance of Jennifer Lawrence’s. It’s gotten to a point where I will go out of my way to see anything that she is involved in. Once again, for me, Bradley Cooper brings the ensemble down. As his character becomes more manic, as an actor he can’t seem to figure out how to showcase the intended craziness and still make it believable. He’s just not in their league, and I felt the same way about his role in Silver Lining Playbook.

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