Thursday, January 16, 2014

Show Some Hustle

I enjoyed writer-director David O. Russell's 2012 film, Silver Linings Playbook, enough that I was keen to see his newest effort, American Hustle. The film is a period piece, set in the 1970s, about a pair of con artists forced to help a federal agent reel in bigger fish. It's very much an "actors' showcase" kind of film, and so appropriately, Russell assembled a cast filled with actors he's worked with before.

Headlining the movie are Christian Bale and Amy Adams, both of whom Russell cast in The Fighter. Bale once again completely transforms himself physically for one of his roles, becoming a sad slob with an outrageous comb-over, whose one saving grace is his savvy ability to manipulate. Amy Adams plays his partner-in-crime, the more truly skilled of the two, whose chameleon ability to slip into a false identity helps Bale's character carry off his schemes.

The supporting roles are filled mostly with actors from Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley Cooper plays the ambitious and psychotic agent who has the two con artists under his thumb. Jennifer Lawrence plays the unstable and crazy (like a fox) wife of Bale's character. And Robert De Niro makes a brief (and amazingly, uncredited) appearance as a mob boss that falls into the agent's cross hairs.

All of these actors have good moments in the film, and generally do good work. But none of them are anywhere near approaching career-best. In fact, all of them gave more compelling and powerful performances in their respective earlier films with Russell. It's actually the newcomers to Russell's "repertory company" that make the greatest impact: Jeremy Renner plays a corrupt mayor everyone is trying to use to get inside a larger conspiracy, while Louis C.K. is wonderful as the much-put-upon boss of Cooper's character. Renner is actually quite sympathetic as an objectively unlikeable character who should be "the bad guy," while Louis C.K. brings in some of the dry humor he does so well on his F/X TV show without disrupting the generally serious tone of the movie. (And don't be fooled by the fact that the Golden Globes inexplicably placed this film in their "Comedy" category -- it's quite serious.)

The movie is decent enough, but there's something about it that never quite gels. At times, it seems to want to be a breezy heist movie, but the stakes often seem too heavyweight for the fun to really take off. At times, it wants to become a film noir, but refuses to give the narrative over to one character to be firmly designated as the "lead." (In fact, the job of narrating is confusingly handed around between three different characters from scene to scene.)

In short, the film is good to a point, but frustratingly unfocused. In all, I'd give it a B-.

No comments: