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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In which THAT cast and THAT script almost create something phenomenal, 8 Jan. 2014
This review is from: American Hustle [DVD] [2013] (DVD)
It's amazing how the slight manipulation of a simple phrase can create such a huge difference. Every time I sit down to watch a film where the first words I see are "based on a true story", I let out a despairing sigh and usually spend the duration wondering how much they are leaning on the word 'based'. American Hustle almost falls into this trap, but by changing the wording to "some of this is true", it completely alleviates the issue. By turning the phrase into an open admission that liberties have been taken with the story, it removes any pretension. It no longer feels like a marketing ploy. Instead, it feels like the film is focussing far more on telling a story, than it is on desperate attempts to provide levity to the events that are about to unfold. In addition, it also helps to stop people from citing every moment as gospel truth, as it makes it clear that some of this is fiction. It's all the more enjoyable for it.

My opinions on David O. Russell's previous films have been, shall we say, lukewarm. While I haven't seen all of them, I have been mostly underwhelmed by the ones that I have seen. I really don't like Three Kings, although I'm fully aware that I'm in the minority there. As for Silver Linings Playbook, I just found it to be a bit dull, saved mainly by Bradley Cooper's excellent performance and the film's miraculous achievement of somehow making Chris Tucker not annoying. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence was excellent too, but I do feel she unjustly overshadowed Cooper. The only two things that make me keep trying Russell's films are The Fighter, which I absolutely loved, and the fact that the stories he decides to take on always intrigue me. I'm glad of that, as this led me to give American Hustle a go.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists (and extra-marital lovers) Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser. While their scams are successful, they eventually get caught by Bradley Cooper's FBI agent Richie Di Maso. Hardly squeaky-clean and very much promotion driven, Di Maso sees Rosenfeld and Prosser's excellence in their field and decides to blackmail them into helping him achieve more arrests on his record. Despite some reluctancy, Rosenfeld and Prosser have no choice and are forced to give in to Di Maso's demands. Their scam, involving a fake Sheikh, leads them to Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, where they set about exposing corruption in various politicians, despite the fairly shady motives on their own part.

With the exception of Renner, the cast is a bit of an amalgamation of both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, with Bale and Adams coming from the former, while Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (as Bale's slightly crazy, but by no means foolish, wife) continue on from Playbook. He is pretty much pulling in the greatest successes of his last two films to create what is an absolutely blinding cast. You've got to imagine the only reason Melissa Leo's not here is because there's not really a part for her. Without exception, the performances are fantastic. For most of them, it's a given that they're going to be great. Find me an awful Bale, Adams or Lawrence performance and I'll negate it with at least three phenomenal ones.

Andy Kaufman fans may need a moment to get over Bale's striking resemblance to Tony Clifton, but this is easily one of his best performances. I've always been a huge fan of his, but have recently found the overly serious roles he takes on to get slightly wearing and, in a few cases, dangerously close to feeling samey. Here, he not only delivers a performance unlike any of his that I can think of, but also properly adds a new string to his bow as he demonstrates effortless comic timing, embracing deadpan hilarity with such great aplomb that Tommy Lee Jones may be feeling a bit threatened. Adams demonstrates an amazing ability to create a believably wavering accent as she masquerades as fake British royalty, Lady Edith Greensley. The small flaws in her British accent feel purposeful, as though they are errors committed by the character, rather than Adams. In one fantastic scene, there's, what appeared to be, a skilful blend when she speaks in her American accent, but keeps falling back into the British. It's as though the character is starting to believe that her real personality is that of Greensley and the lines between that and her real self are more than a little blurred. It's also good to see her with a fleshed-out character after her outright bland performance as Lois Lane. If you're still clinging on to Adams as Giselle, you may want to stay away too. Sydney Prosser is anything but sweetness and light. Lawrence, meanwhile, continues to develop more and more maturity to her roles, impressive when you consider that her previous roles were hardly lacking in that department. My concerns that it became apparent they weren't going to acknowledge the 16-year age gap between Lawrence and Bale were soon proven to be slightly idiotic on my part. It both doesn't and shouldn't matter. They are a fighting couple who manage to show dispute and mutual affection at the same time, something that doesn't often come across. Most of the time, actors would just present screaming followed by affection, with any blend between the two being impossible to discern. Lawrence and Bale feel like a real couple, going through real issues. When they're on screen together, you have some of the film's strongest moments.

The acting revelations though are Cooper and Renner. Cooper has managed to banish any possibilities of The Hangover series being his entire legacy and he's done it in less than a year. If you'd asked me to bank on that two years ago, I would have laughed in your face and told you that Ed Helms stood the strongest chance of doing that. Last I checked, I'm dead wrong on that, with Helms' only solace currently being that he doesn't have to call himself Zach Galifianakis. Is Cooper's performance entirely different from anything he's done before? No. The character's going through dual personality issues similar to those that he had in Silver Linings. Instead, what Cooper is doing is falling back on things that have succeeded for him in the past, but then developing them, instead of resting on his laurels. What excites me about Cooper is that I feel he's only going to develop as time progresses and the next time he's in cinemas, I will be genuinely interested to see if he can continue on what could be an ascent to great things. Although, if they don't get their act together with releasing Serena, his next film will probably be Guardians Of The Galaxy, when I'll be more interested in seeing if James Gunn is capable of making something that isn't awful. Renner, on the other hand, has achieved a minor miracle in making me care about something that he has done. Until now, Renner has been leeching off the fact that he was in The Hurt Locker and gone from there to bring an aura of dullness to anything else that he's starred in. Finally though, I may be starting to see what others see in him. His performance here is not perfect, veering a little close to overacting at times. Critically though, it's never dull. He doesn't take anything away from any of the scenes he's in and, on occasions, becomes their strongest asset, avoiding the corrupt politician stereotype to the point where you can even feel sympathies towards him.

As great as the performances are, they're only 50% of the film's success. The other 50% is the script, or, more accurately, the lines. Put bluntly, I would sell my soul to be able to write lines as good as this. It's intelligent without feeling like it's considering itself above it's audience. Also, the comic timing demonstrated by the actors is only going to be of benefit if the lines themselves are funny and, on a number of occasions, I genuinely laughed out loud, instead of the internal uncharitable laughter that I am often prone to. With that in mind, the script also contributes to a nagging flaw which doesn't detract from the film too much, but does present itself for the duration.

American Hustle doesn't owe a debt to Martin Scorsese's Casino. It owes it's entire existence to it, to the point where if you replaced Bale with De Niro, Cooper with Pesci and combined Adams and Lawrence into Sharon Stone (God forbid) you would, at times, be hard-pushed to tell the difference. The characters often feel very familiar, with it being the actors that make them unique, rather than the story or script. There's a number of stolen ideas too, from the use of a regular multi-character narration to a climactic opening that teases you with what's to come. It's not quite an exploding car, but it still serves the same purpose. I wouldn't call it an identity crisis, because it rarely feels like it's trying to stray from it. Also, I suppose If you're going to use another film as a template, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better one than Casino. I just wish it had been a little more capable of creating it's own style. It's not a damning issue and never stops the film from feeling enjoyable. Just slightly derivative.

If you've driven past anywhere with enough billboards, you will have seen an American Hustle poster and it will probably have been emblazoned with the various Golden Globe nominations. I'm also writing this on the day that the film received 10 BAFTA nominations. Of all the eligible films I have seen, I have absolutely no problems with Hustle's nominations. Sadly though, I don't really want it to win any of them. For me, Captain Phillips deserves Best Film, although I think that's wishful thinking and also need to note that I've not seen 12 Years A Slave or Philomena. Alfonso Cuarón deserves Best Director and I can name others that I want to win in the acting categories, with the exception of Supporting Actress and that's only because I haven't seen the other nominated performances. I also don't think it will win too many of them and fully anticipate that, on ratio of nominations to wins, it will be this year's Lincoln. American Hustle is well worth a watch, but I do think it's going to be a victim of a saturated and incredibly strong awards field. While it doesn't quite hit all the notes needed to be truly great, I fully recommend it, but suspect there's going to be other films more worth your money in the coming weeks.

FOUR out of five
Contains frequent greatness in the performances and the script, but fails to maintain it overall.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 21 Apr 2014 12:02:21 BDT
Julie Smith says:
Renner leeching off The Hurt Locker? Did you not see The Town? Also I think he is the only one of the main 5 who wasn't overacting.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2014 10:46:27 BDT
Yes I saw The Town and, though I feel the need to see it again, can't remember anything about Renner in it, which isn't a good sign to me. Of the other 6 films he's done since then, he's added nothing to them for me with the possible exception of The Immigrant (which I haven't seen). Don't agree that he wasn't overacting, particularly in the opening scene, but I'm starting to see that maybe they all were and it kind of suits the film. I'm planning on rewatching this one, as I'm thinking I may re-evaluate my stance on it on a second watch.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 May 2014 18:03:55 BDT
I just re-watched The Town and take back my previous comment. He's brilliant in it and I'm not sure why I didn't remember him the first time around.
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