On Getting Hustled

We saw American Hustle over the holidays. I just don’t get what the big deal about this movie is. I feel like maybe it really should have been called Americans Getting Hustled. In which we are the Americans.

This film limped along on crutch after crutch. For example, we came into the theater when the credits from the previous screening were still rolling. I saw the soundtrack listing rolling by, and at first I thought, “Wow, that’s quite a soundtrack…” and then it kept rolling….and kept rolling.

How could this movie pack so many familiar hits, from Chicago to Elton John to Paul McCartney to Santana, into a couple of hours? By slipping into musical-montage-with narrative-voiceover mode whenever it feels like it. Dozens of times. And filling in the gaps between the montages with disco scenes and drunken singing in bars. The music was applied with such a heavy hand that it felt like it was trying to cover up something weak, rather than enhance something strong: “WE ARE IN THE 70S! REMEMBER THIS SONG? DO YOU HAVE FEELINGS ABOUT IT? DON’T LOOK AT THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN”

And speaking of voiceovers….

The first scene of this movie is fantastic. You’re dropped into a suite at the Plaza Hotel, in the middle of, well, Stage One of a big hustle. Talk is fast, tensions (and hairstyles) are high, and everything goes wrong immediately. The walls are practically sweating energy and suspense. And then it immediately slams on the brakes. And derails.

Right away, we shift gears into flashback-with-exposition, and it’s snoozeville. The characters tell us about themselves, and about each other. Early in the movie, this narration is passed from character to character, but only some of the major characters get to speak. Jennifer Lawrence’s and Jeremy Renner’s voices are notably absent, which would be fine, I guess–they are not inside the circle of hustlers–except that the passing of the expository torch happens without much rhyme or reason. And then it just stops altogether, to be picked up again (by one character only) when the director feels like it. Like when he needs to give you too much information too quickly, or when what’s on screen fails to tell you what you need to know.

The voiceovers don’t play off of what’s happening on the screen in any useful or interesting way. For example, the characters’ own accounts of their past don’t conflict with what we see (Singin’ in the Rain style). Nor do they conflict with one another’s. Each story has its own perspective, yes. But they’re pretty much all consistent with one another, which doesn’t really lend itself to the idea that someone is always getting the wool pulled over their eyes. Why waste the powerful opportunity of each character speaking directly and privately to the audience, just to tell us that they all basically agree about what happened? Should there not be some friction here?

Perhaps most importantly, these flashbacks don’t tell us anything about the characters that fundamentally changes how we understand them. OK–Christian Bale turned to a life of crime at a young age to help his father’s business. Got it: he’s clever and opportunistic, with his own moral code. But we should be able to pick up this simply by watching his behavior and decisions (and we can–this comes through well. The point is that the whole flashback is just unnecessary bulk).

Likewise, why does it matter that Amy Adams was once a stripper, and then a staffer at Cosmo? Unless it explains her penchant for low-cut tops? In fact, she is the most disappointingly underdeveloped character in the movie: we have plenty of information about her past, but not why she is doing any of this. What is her deal? I have no idea! We’re never sure if she really feels anything for Bradley Cooper or not, but I didn’t really care. She makes pronouncements like “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything!”, a line better suited, I think, for Jennifer Larence’s dangerously clingy, unstable Rosalyn. These words that tell us what we’re supposed to believe about Amy Adam’s character, but we don’t see her show any of this kind of all-in-scorched-earth vengeance. It’s more like she just floats from thing to thing, and won’t say no to anything.

I so badly wanted the whole movie to ultimately be about her “putting one over on all of these guys.” The Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ending, I guess. It was not to be.

Disappointingly, the voiceover technique is used only to tell us what the movie does not convincingly show. I am told that Christian Bale and Amy Adams have intense sexual and criminal synergy. But somehow the  non-sequitur Pretty Woman-esque fashion show in the fur storage safe at the dry cleaners doesn’t convince me. I am told that Jennifer Lawrence has some sick power over Christian Bale–he keeps coming back for more. But I don’t believe it. I see the disgust but not the magnetism. So many of the reviews of American Hustle rave about the raw energy and chemistry of the ensemble.  That just did not come across to me. I felt like it might have been filmed like the new season of Arrested Development, where actors are reading lines in a studio by themselves, and then spliced together in editing.

The costumes and decor provide more smoke and mirrors. This movie has more groups-of-people-in-70s-garb-walking-in-slow-motion-toward-the-camera than Anchorman. Christian Bale has done something physically drastic to himself once again, and Bradley Cooper curls his hair. Between the curlers and the combover, the characters are clearly obsessed with the ravine between appearance and reality. The whole movie  is really about this gap: popular politicians who are really corrupt who are really good. Con men who really care about supporting local business who really just want a friend. Ambition that is really addiction. There is so much rich stuff there to work with, and it feels like the movie barely scratches the surface.

Instead, it spends its time on the overwrought metaphor of the nailpolish that smells like perfume and garbage, both, and on a weak gag about how microwaves were once newfangled and weird and people didn’t know about not putting metal in them.

And then the ending. I mean, I know David O. Russell is often criticized for his overly sunny endings. The ending of Silver Linings Playbook left me sick to my stomach, really, physically upset, because I feared for the delusions of the characters (and the director), who really seemed to believe everything would be just fine when it clearly would not be. But this one didn’t give me any feelings at all other than, “Wow. That was cheap, lazy, and disappointing.”

Over and over again, characters in the movie refer to pulling off a con “from the feet up.” It means to go all the way, paying close attention to every detail. And the movie does this. There are no holds barred on costumes, sets, makeup, physical transformations, accents, star power, music, cars, cultural references. We’re meant to believe that this is a fastidious, clever, energetic, exciting, funny, manic fictionalization of a very real time in our past. All the distracting, shiny, misdirecting pieces are in place….hiding the fact that the whole thing never comes to life.



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