Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Cinema File #297: "American Hustle" Review

Following the inexplicable Oscar darling Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle was probably one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year for many critics. One of the most overrated and undeserving directors working today with what now appears to be his regular stable of some of the most overrated and undeserving actors working today, just in time for this year's Oscar season,  brings forth a none too subtle attempt to ape the classics. You might say its like a Martin Scorsese movie, or at least slathered in the trappings of his best work, or maybe like Martin Scorsese doing a Cohen Brothers movie, but without the talent of either influence. In short, its a mess of clashing imagery and tone that amounts to little more than a self-indulgent exercise in, well, I'd make a Spanking The Monkey joke, but I wonder if that's more outdated then the pompadours and perms all over this movie.

American Hustle, loosely based on the 70's era ABSCAM scandal, follows a long island con man and his mistress as they find themselves roped into helping an ambitious FBI agent mount a sting operation against corrupt politicians. Of course, any movie centered around con artists is going to involve secrets on top of secrets, misdirection, and a host of characters who prove to be more than they appear to be on the surface, and American Hustle is no exception. Every character in the movie has something to hide and is pretending to be someone they're not, with varying degrees of success. The problem is, this only works if you can believe the actors are who they're supposed to be underneath all the subterfuge, and in this case, this is one of the most miscast movies in recent memory.

Every actor in this movie comes across like Leonardo DiCaprio when he tries to play a real life person like J. Edgar Hoover or Howard Hughes, like a gooney kid wearing his father's clothes and play acting in the backyard. The bad dinner theater wigs do little to conceal the complete lack of realism as these characters, many based on actual people, expand outwards into broad caricature with every wacky twist and turn while the world around them desperately tries to maintain some kind of faux gritty style, constantly buckling under the weight of this ever-growing goofball of a movie. Had it started out as a more straight forward comedy or maintained a darker thriller sensibility, or just settled on any one recognizable and consistent tone, it might have worked, but as it is, nothing about this movie feels genuine, and no one in it feels like they belong in this world.

Watching Christian Bale adjust his silly comb over and admire his very authentic gut in the mirror, I couldn't help but think back to Matthew McConaughey in this year's Dallas Buyers Club and his similarly drastic transformation from leading man to impossibly frail. Bale is one of those actors who is famous for committing so much to a role that he will put his body through Hell to fit the part, but while McConaughey's skeletel appearance made his turn as an AIDs patient so much more believable, and made the film so much better than it otherwise would have been, Bale's comparable weight gain just seemed so pointless, and as a result so pretentious. The fact that he's actually fat and schlubby, as opposed to just padded or given the appearance of being fat and schlubby through clever camera tricks adds nothing to this movie, except maybe as a metaphor for how shallow it is, obsessed with irrelevant details to the detriment of what's actually important.

Outside of a kicking soundtrack and some ironically enjoyable Bradly Cooper overacting to rival the most outlandish of Nic Cage performances, there isn't really all that much good to say about American Hustle. If you're a fan of side-boob, or one of the regrettable many who've been placed under the spell of Jennifer Lawerence's hypnotic frozen expression, there's a scene in a woman's bathroom of particular interest, and we also get Louis C.K. playing himself playing a government functionary if that does anything for you, but on the whole, its the kind of movie just insufferable enough to merit the unanimous unearned praise of the pedantic Oscar bait loving critical establishment, who have long since forgotten what an actually entertaining movie looks like. But hey, at least there's no Chris Tucker this time around. That counts for something, right?
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