American Hustle: Too Much

AMERICAN-HUSTLE-poster-1024x768I’ve been trying to get to American Hustle for weeks and today I finally made it. After coming up with a big fat nada despite ten nominations at this year’s Oscars, it is bound to be off the marquee tomorrow.

It’s hard to tell if my experience of Hustle was colored by being the only . . . the absolute only. . . soul in the theater, but I’m going to have to say that I was a bit disappointed. If there had been others around, I’m sure I would have laughed out loud more. A lot more.

And even though I got to sit in the exact center of the theater, I always felt too close to the screen. The hair was big and the heads were so terribly large, right there, and impossible to ignore.  Invited to look that closely, I found myself distracted in a crucial scene by the differing shape and architecture of Christian Bale’s and Jeremy Renner’s nostrils. 

Granted, this is a movie that begs to be shot close-up. It’s not really about the FBI ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s. Not really. It’s about how we all con ourselves and others in pursuit of the life and love we lack. The trouble may not be director David O. Russell’s camera angle. The theaters and screens themselves have gotten crazily big. They have to be for all those booming, in your face CGI-driven action flicks. But if you know you’re sailing on the Titanic, you have to make allowances. 

Given his last three incredibly well-received films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now Hustle) Russell may be on the verge of becoming another Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen.  Like both, he has definitely got the ensemble thing down, working with the same actors repeatedly (Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper in Hustle and in Playbook; Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter). In a way, Hustle seems an homage to Scorsese. Cooper, playing an FBI agent on a cocaine-fueled crusade, conjures some of Ray Liotta’s chemically induced mania in the later reels of Goodfellas. The sets, costumes, and hair all ring just as true as in Scorsese’s meticulously styled period pieces.  But Scorsese is interested in societies, in groups. The Mob. The families of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence New York.  

Russell is at his best with more intimate concerns, with individuals’ motivations and their private moments. In the opening scene of Hustle, he allows us to spy on Bale’s Irving Rosenfield in the bathroom as he performs an elaborate ritual to hide a–to him–humiliating secret. Early on, we’re led to believe Irving is no more than a preening, petty con, the most laughable and unsympathetic of characters. But one indicator of an actor’s chops is whether he can play a weasel and make us not only love but root for him. Bale passes with flying colors. Indeed, each of the four Best Actor nominations in Hustle is appropriate and well deserved.

Hustle tries to be too many things at once:  a comedy, a con movie, a love story, an historical piece, even social commentary. Like those nostrils, the lack of focus is distracting. I never got completely lost, even though I was completely alone.  

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