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American Hustle leaves a lot to be desired

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is one of those films that leaves you expecting more. This expectation is severely inflated by the critical acclaim it is receiving. It is one of those movies that leaves you thinking “maybe I just don’t get it.” American Hustle takes place at the end of the 1970s, and I supposed if you remember that time period fondly you may enjoy American Hustle for the nostalgia aspect. It’s a nice vehicle for the A-list cast to do their thing, and if all you want is to see Christian Bale et. al. having a good time, then you’ll probably enjoy the movie.

American Hustle is not a bad movie. It is technically proficient. It even has a really neat visual effect that takes place at a dry cleaner with the characters framed by spinning laundry. Story-wise however, it is a very standard, by-the-numbers movie.

Stop reading here if you don’t want SPOILERS

Although, there’s really nothing to spoil.

As I said, the storyline is pretty standard. The plot revolves around a pair of criminals, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They are recruited by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to do “one last gig” in exchange for their freedom. But nothing goes as planned and eventually the characters find themselves in over their heads. There’s nothing wrong with that tried and true storyline. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. The question is, what does this movie do with this storyline that sets it apart from so many others like it? The answer is, pretty much nothing.

Alright, I’m being unfair. There is one thing that sets this film apart: humor. That’s what this movie has going for it, its time setting and its humor. The big twist is that this isn’t actually a crime drama, it’s a romantic comedy.

Oh, yes, the romance. That’s really what this movie is about. The movie employs another tired cliché: the love-triangle. The second plot of the movie revolves around Rosenfeld and DiMaso competing for Prosser’s affection (Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn Rosenfeld is thrown in there about a third into the movie). Again, I have nothing against love-triangles, in fact, like any lover of melodrama I’m very fond of them. But again, this movie doesn’t really do anything with it.

It is this juxtaposition between the crime-drama and the romantic-comedy that ultimately fails the movie. There is a particular scene that takes place at a club. While the men go to the back to confront a mob-boss, the women stay in the front and confront each other; they are of course fighting over the male protagonist. Now, while a scene with Adams and Lawrence going at each other’s throats sounds good on paper, the juxtaposition between that scene and the mob-boss scene is jarring in a way that does not benefit the movie. Not only is this pairing of scenes very sexist, almost shockingly so, but setting these scenes together steals the seriousness from both of them. You can’t take the Sydney and Rosalyn’s fight seriously when the men are in the other room confronting a mob-boss, and with the women stealing the show, you can’t feel as nervous as Irving is.

This is the scene where I feel the movie ultimately begins to fall apart. To frame this positively, this is the scene where it is clear that this is a comedy and not a serious movie. In the film’s defense, I’ll take this type of comedy over Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller comedies any day.

The problem is, for the duration of the movie, this comedy continues to try to masquerade as a crime-drama when it clearly isn’t. After this scene, although the dialogue, the acting, and the narrative keep telling you that the stakes are high and the characters are way in over their head, you never really believe that the characters are in any real danger. The stakes aren’t actually high, and so your interest wanes.

It doesn’t help that the romantic stakes aren’t very high either. While the two leads struggle in their relationship, you never actually believe that they won’t end up together. In reality, it all ends as you would expect from a by-the-numbers movie. The villain gets his much deserved comeuppance and the heroes get away scot-free (even though they are criminals). Even Jennifer Lawrence’s character gets here “just deserves.” In her final scene, she is in a neck brace after a self-inflicted accident.

Here I’d like to pause to talk a little more about the women in the movie. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence play the stereotypical female roles. While at first it seems like Sydney Prosser will have some agency in the movie, she ultimately just becomes the love interest for Irving. Thus Adams is as wasted as she was in The Man of Steel. Jennifer Lawrence at least gets to play the fun stereotypical female character of the Crazy B*tch. And she really is the only saving grace of the movie. While the character is needlessly misogynistic (she’s a dumb blonde of a wife who is in the way of Irving’s happiness with Prosser and his son.), at least she injects much needed humor, and (even more importantly) drama, into a lackluster movie. She steals every scene she’s in, and saves the movie from being a complete dud.

Before I conclude, there’s also a subplot with Jeremy Renner and something in there about morality not being black and white, but gray, and doing what you have to do to survive, but again, that’s mostly lost in all the relationship drama and criminal hijinks.

As I said, American Hustle is not a bad movie. If you’re looking for a light comedy set in the late 70s, early 80s, or if you’re a fan of Lawrence, Adams, Bale, or Cooper (who is perfectly cast by the way; his character is supposed to be hateful and annoying), then you’ll probably enjoy the movie. If you’re looking for something more however, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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