“American Hustle” a Review by Alan Farrell

Directed by: David Russell (who also did The Fighter, dispiriting flick about one of Nature’s lesser creatures who manages at length—great length—to stand on his hind legs and beard his tormentors; then Silver Linings Playbook, dispiriting flick about one of Nature’s lesser creatures who manages at length—great length—to stand on his hind legs and beard his tormentors… annnnnnnnd evidently co-written by him, the which make him, in the French, a co-auteur not to say co-hauteur… urf! urf!). Starring: Whoa! The lot…Christian Bale (who’s made a fetish of dropping weight till he’s positively cadaverous, then regaining, then dropping, then morphing back up to beer-bellitude, then… Hey! Worked for Tom Hanks). Anyhow; Bradley Cooper, making some weird choices of script lately and this won’t end well for him, mark my words; Jeremy Renner, ditto and who’d better get back to action flicks right quick; Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence in dueling décolletés as lovely but unlovable fee-males; Michael Pena, a Peruvian I think, as an Ay-rab; Louis C.K. (no, I don’t know why he does that) fresh from comic relief as comic relief (You think he was gonna play Hamlet?).

Dispiriting flick about one of Nature’s lesser creatures who manages at length—great length—to stand on his hind legs and beard his tormentors, which is not to say this director (co-auteur) has only a single note to sound though he does seem to dispose of a single instrument. Seem to me here that we have the Madame Bovary question writ Cineplex large: Do twelve pages of arsenic poisoning (Oh, man… sorry to ruin it for you. Well, at least I didn’t reveal who dies of arsenic poisoning, so there’s a little suspense left. Anyhow, you woulda guessed from the title. Oh, man… did it again. Okay, try Anna Karenina. You’ll never guess who throws herself under a train in that one.) wash away 384 pages of fornication, self-delusion, fornication, self-indulgence, fornication? Does a two-minute coda of virtue triumphant blot out 105 minutes of syrupy wallow in vice, duplicity, mendacity, venality, ennu-y? Does permitting these denizens of the demi-monde a flash of attenuated accomplishment compensate the hour(s) of humiliation, frustration, bondage to which they’re subjected and we treated? Low mimetic mode… yeah, low all right… low enough to crawl under a snake with an eighty-pound rucksack on (Okay, okay… silly image. Why’d a snake have an eighty-pound rucksack on?).

We lovingly reconstruct the 70’s (why?), double-knit, bell-bottomed, platform-shod, over-combed, and apparently décolletée down to here, automobiles and morality evidently endemic to that epoch of self-absorption and self-servitude. Our Everyman is Irving Rosenfeld (they’re all ethnics save for the women who are both trailer-trash, so our bona fides as salt of the earth gets cinched early on), played by Bale with a generic accent of some kind, perhaps Jewish by way of New Jersey by way of Quint from Jaws and what the hell was that? Rosenfeld combs his remaining hair over a balding pate, glues on a rug, styles it with that spray stuff, running gag we’re dosed with several times in case you missed it, you dummy, testimony to his essential falsity. He engages in small-time grifting, based out of a more or less legit dry cleaning business. He’s teamed up with fallen flower Sydney (Amy Adams), who’s fetched up with an alter-ego, Lady Jane—or something—and an alter accent allegedly British; he’s married to shrill Mensa-reject Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence recycling Renée Zellweger from Cinderella Man). The tarnished threesome cohabit in uneasy symbiosis, grifting and drifting till…

Uh oh! Caught in a small-scale sting by ambitious (and spit-curled) FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, wasted here), the Rosenfelds are dragooned into serving as federal stooges to teach DiMaso how to score big game… like senators and rich guys and stuff. So it goes. Exploiting DiMaso’s resources and Rosenfeld’s expertise, they stake out the Huey Long of Newark, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, with a pompadour size of Dee-Moines testifying to his seventies cred on account of in this kind of cinee-mah, if you can’t see it, it ain’t). Onliest hitch, Polito appears to be a nice guy, family man, devoted to the citizens of Newark. His interest in snagging money is mostly to improve the lives of his charges, it being understood that anything “improved” in New Jersey requires grease with which to lube the only-too-squeaky wheels of unions, political machines, bureaucracies, the lot. So there you go: The good guy (FBI agent) is bad or at least corruptible; the graftable pigeon (Mayor of Newark) is decent or at least well-intented; the operators are morally flaccid, louche (a lot like flaccid, except, you know… classy because French), malleable (a lot like louche, except multisyllable). A world turnt upside down. Wup… I feel a lesson coming here.

I didn’t care for the seventies. Like them even less in re-run. Didn’t find anyone or anything admirable in that ugly, best-forgotten decade (Yeah, yeah… likely envy since I’d just blown four years in Pharaoh’s Army only to come back and see my coevals flourishing and no place for me at the table, but hey… I couldn’t be that small), not the fashions, religiously recreated here, not even the cars, duly cruising up and down street behind the action (same car several times, by the bye; check it out) as if to anchor it in space-time, except for the muscle-cars (FBI agents, décolletée fee-males, Ay-rab sheiks, and Jewish grifters don’t subscribe, so you have to catch The Dukes of Hazzard, Starsky & Hutch, Gran Torino for that). This whole business allegedly driven by the legend of Abscam, a sting perpetrated by the FBI and that snagged a batch of high rollers and prominent pols in public scandal though I think I remember that most of them walked in the end: FBI taking on the Legislature kinda like two bugs umph umphing. Lot of critical bleating about this movie, Oscar ™ nods and on and on. I fear you’ll find it tedious and unrewarding (like The Fighter and Silver Linings) as I fear still more that the bleating will encourage this guy to direct yet another in the same vein (varicose, to be exact… yours).

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10 Responses to “American Hustle” a Review by Alan Farrell

  1. Fred says:

    How can Hollywood re-do the ’70s without muscle cars? BTW you left out a reference to Smokey and the Bandit. Maybe they can redo that one. Son of Smokey, sonny goes off to bring Colorado’s finest to the South. That might actually be worth ten bucks.
    Glad you’re back Alan.

  2. Okay, I’m laughing at a ridiculous movie I will never see. Monsieur (French) Farrell has brightened my day yet again. Thank you, sir!

  3. Stephanie says:

    I’m puzzled by the amount of critical affection being showered on American Hustle. Seemed to me to be both faux-Seventies and faux-Scorsese, and given that an actual Scorsese picture on a related subject is playing in the same cineplex currently, you might as well see that one even if it isn’t top-of-the-line.
    Maybe Marty should trade in his current muse DiCaprio for Cooper, the results could be interesting…..

  4. Alan! At least one modern American historian has labeled the culture of Americans as a nation of “hustlers”! We hustle ourselves and others! See again “The Hustler” identifying “self-delusion” as the key American trait!

  5. Medicine Man says:

    Entertaining as always, Mr. Farrell. Thanks for the good read.
    My favorite theory about films like this is that they are deliberate Oscar vehicles. Lavish period pieces that harken back to the glory days of the people who comprise the voting committees for the awards (ie. mostly actors and directors of a certain age); see The King’s Speech as an example.
    Anyhow, I’m not quite 40 yet, so this bit of weaponized nostalgia won’t work on me. My recollection of the 70s is a bit vague.

  6. Maureen Lang says:

    Just saw this movie last weekend & you are dead on the money, Alan. Also, thanks for two film reviews in one week- a real treat. I’m inclined to agree with Stephanie’s observation upthread that the pile of awards this flick is already amassing is slightly puzzling. Are voters bowled over by the “star power” cast? The screwy, skewed plot? Cooper’s ringlets, Bale’s paunch, Adams’ oohlala? I wasn’t, but who the heck knows why the movie swells vote the way they do. This is NOT the best picture of the year, though the Academy may very well deem it just that.
    While watching “American Hustle” I kept returning to the thin hope of Jennifer Lawrence not becoming, courtesy of David Russell, the go-to actress for ditzy crazed sexbombs, when she was so stunningly good playing backwoods teenager Ree Dolly in “Winter’s Bone.” Probably hoping that in vain after this awards season. Side note: did enjoy the wink ‘n nod casting of Jack Huston as the mafia guy who falls for Lawrence, considering his series-long role as Richard “Half Face” Harrow in “Boardwalk Empire.”

  7. Eliot says:

    I can’t say I enjoyed American Hustle. I didn’t have much sympathy for its plucky downtrodden heroes trying to make a buck where they could. I suppose I might feel differently if I came from an outsider culture. As it is, I’m far closer to Irving Rosenfeld’s small time victims that I am to him.
    My mother read me Br’er Rabbit as a child, and I loved those stories. I suppose the difference is this – both are hustlers but David O. Russell’s are predators too. They exploit the weak and the vulnerable. I dislike that, it rankles my sense of honor.

  8. Farrell,
    I don’t agree. I liked the film, liked the performances, and thought the script was really good. Also, I have a large quibble with the review. To wit, Carmine Polito was mayor of Camden. Camden’s the city located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The other place, Newark, is across the Hudson from New York. I don’t think I’m being pedantic, although, in my family, I do have that rep.

  9. optimax says:

    I also liked the movie. It is basically the same David vs. Goliath theme as the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading.” Both movies are about small-time scammers putting one over on a corrupt and incompetent system. The former through ingenuity and the latter through bumbling.

  10. Mark Logan says:

    A suggestion for the SSTFC, “Ridicule”, French, Fanny Ardant…among other things. Check it out.

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