Monday, 17 February 2014

Oscar Review - American Hustle

Period pieces often serve as Oscar bait. Having a quick scan over the best Oscar winners since the beginning of the eighties, it seems most have some kind of historical setting. From Gladiator to Titanic from Forest Gump to Lord of the Ringsi the academy seem to like being taken into the past and meeting characters with period hair and clothing. American Hustle provides lots of period clothing and hair and is very aware of it's historical setting and my guess is the Oscar Academy will be impressed. Set in the late 1970s, David O'Russell's American Hustle is a fictionalisation of the Abscam affair, in which the FBI enlisted (in the film forced) con artists to entrap, um I mean, ensnare senior politicians in a bribery sting, using a fake Arab Sheik.

Following closely on the heels of O'Russell's heavily nominated Silver Linings Playbook and starring Oscar winners Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro and with nominees Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams, you have to assume that the producers had the Oscars very much on their mind as they were pulling everything together. So I guess the question is this - does bringing together all this talent in one film actually work and does it deserve the accolades it so very desperately wants?

The Good
This film is comparable to last year's best Oscar Winner Argo, in that it draws from a real historical event as the basis for a caper movie. I thought the opening slide stating “Some of this actually happened” was a nice touch and deflects much of the criticism that can, sometimes legitimately, be leveled at Argo and the like for the liberties they take with history. There is something quite delightful about watching essentially corrupt characters, whether they be con artists or FBI agents, uncover a different type of corruption at the highest levels of politics. There was also something appropriate about the melancholy ending that suggested that despite everyone's efforts, nothing of consequence had been achieved. In general, O'Russell has chosen an interesting story, one that allows for an eclectic cast of characters and in the end it is a character piece.

You'd expect, given the gilded cast, that the acting wouldn't be half bad and the players are indeed the strongest and most successful element of American Hustle. The film is not just about the individual characters but the relationships between them which drive both the plot and performances. The central romance, between Bale's Irving Rosenfeld and Adams' Sydney Prosser, was both endearing and well played. I enjoyed how quickly I, much like Irving and Sydney, rapidly put aside my moral questions regarding the extra marital romance and just enjoy the relationship. Jennifer Lawrence gives a flawless performance as the emotionally unstable Rosalyn and does far more with the “other woman” role than a lesser actor could (though I feel the film-makers tried very hard to make her unattractive and failed). Another key relationship in the film is between Irving and Jeremy Renner's Mayor Polito. We see them develop a star crossed platonic relationship, doomed to disaster due to Irving's forced duplicity. Renner's performance, perhaps the most understated of all the cast, was well pitched. Of all the characters, I sympathised with Polito the most, especially at the moment he sees everything collapsing in on itself. Also, the bickering, almost fraternal relationship between FBI agents played by Bradley Cooper and Louis CK was perhaps where the comedic elements of the film were at their strongest. I really wanted to hear the end of the ice fishing story.

The Bad
Given the near universal good performances of almost every actor involved you'd expect the problems with American Hustle to be few and minor. Unfortunately, despite the Oscar worthy acting the film suffers from having too many characters, too many plot lines and just too much to do in the standard running time of a motion picture. As stated, the film is, in part, about the relationships between the characters. You have the extra marital affair between Bale and Adams, the failing marriage story involving Bale and Lawrence, there is the developing friendship between Bale and Renner, the boss employee relationship between Cooper and CK and the largely pointless extra extra marital affair between Cooper and Adams which is mixed up with the penis measuring relationship between Bale and Cooper and on the fringes we have the scorned wife and other woman relationship between Lawrence and Adams. If I were to draw up some kind of relationship chart it would be far more complicated that those diagrams used to explain the plot of inception to stupid peopleii. There simply isn't enough to be drawn in to and the audience is not given the time to actually give a crap about any of the relationships. The cast is entirely A-list, so perhaps this was a problem over screen time negotiations or perhaps it was the screen writers unwillingness to focus too much on one or two characters. Whatever the reason, the complex web of interaction leaves the plot drawn out and unfocused to the point where I left the cinema not entirely knowing what the point of the film was supposed to be.

There has been a lot of discussion about American Hustle being nominated for "Best Musical or Comedy" as people were unsure that it can be described as a comedy.  I think this is a symptom of the film's disjointedness.  Is is a comedy, a drama, a caper, a political satire, a period piece, a romantic film, a bromantic film, a film about FBI agents or a film about con artists?  In the end American hustle attempts to be all of these and ends up being very little.  

Given this lack of focus, American Hustle essentially turns into two hours of Oscar winning and nominated actors acting their asses off. In fact, in the end, I felt like I was being acted at rather than experiencing a story. 

There were other minor issues. The film goes to great lengths to continually remind you that we are in the late 70s. Other films, like Argo or Wolf of Wall street, seem to be able to set the period whilst keeping in firmly in the background. Everything in American Hustle screams 1970s to the point where the time period becomes a character all it's own in a film which already has too many characters. This further adds the the unfocused nature of the film.

One final grievance, and I wasn't sure how to approach this, but given that the five time academy award nominated Amy Adams is regarded as one of the finest working actors around today, did she really need her cleavage to play a supporting role throughout the entire film?

Final Thoughts
American Hustle is a good film, there is no denying that. It's direction is competent, it's acting close to flawless and it's story is interesting. But the apparent desperate clamour for screen time leaves it feeling empty and unfocused and it's self awareness as an “Oscar Movie” leaves it feeling contrived.
Please Comment or tweet your thoughts (@blakeleynixon)

i Lord of the Rings are historical films right?
iiYeah, I needed the Inception diagram...

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