Author of Time Rep and Note To Self

American Hustle – the great con-trick movie

So I went to see American Hustle the other day. It was alright. Jennifer Lawrence was excellent in it. Christian Bale was pretty good in it. He put on lots of weight for the role, you know. That was about it. After I saw the film, I went home, made some tea, and felt decidedly indifferent about it, like the way I feel after I’ve bought some new socks or eaten a bag of ready salted crisps. American Hustle was neither brilliant enough leave any significantly positive feelings in my mind, nor was it so terrible as to annoy me in any way. It was perfectly average, and that was it. A good three-star film, if you like star ratings.

Then I hear that it’s up for every award ever. I see reviews about how it’s one of the greatest confidence-trickster movies ever. I read that everything about it is simply awesome and that it must be in with a chance of winning every award that isn’t going to be won by 12 Years a Slave (which I haven’t seen) and Gravity (which I have seen and absolutely adored.)

Now American Hustle has my attention. Was it really one of the greatest confidence-trickster movies ever made? I guess it must have been if it could trick the critics into having that sort of reaction. I mean, what is it about this film that is so amazing exactly? Did I miss something? Well, according to the glittering praise being showered on it from most people – yes. Yes, I did miss something. I missed how stunning the performances were. I missed how hilarious it was. I missed how clever the plot was. I missed how perfectly it captured the essence of the era in which it was set.

I’ll say this again – American Hustle is in no way a bad film. It was funny, it was entertaining, and as I said, I thought Jennifer Lawrence was brilliant as Christian Bale’s wife, managing to somehow come across as both bonkers and smart; manipulative yet endearing. You loved her even though she was reckless, a danger to her son, and completely mad. She was hilarious, she delivered a great performance, and the film stepped up several gears whenever she was on screen. At one point when Bale is trying to stop her from going out with him that evening, Mayor Polito (played by Jeremy Renner) says “she’s got to come! She’s the life and soul of the party!” And yes, she really was. But other than that, was this film great? If by ‘great’ we mean a film that people will still be talking about for years to come, then no. It wasn’t great. But it wasn’t bad either.

If I’m honest, there are only three criticisms I have for this film, and none of them are particularly major – the first is the same problem some people will probably have with this review: it was a bit too long. Weighing in at two hours and twenty minutes, it felt slow in places and could easily have had its running time cut down by about half an hour. There were a few ‘arty’ shots clearly favoured by the director that dragged things out (Christian Bale standing in his launderette whilst shirts whizzed around him didn’t add much for me to be honest), and some scenes were over-dialogued and outstayed their welcome.

My second criticism is that I felt the film’s tone was a bit off balance, and I think this had a lot to do with the humour. Now, as I said, I thought this film was funny, but at the same time, the humour needle was swinging all over the place, never knowing if it wanted to settle on goofball shouting, slapstick, sophistication, or visual gags about Renner’s / Bale’s / Cooper’s hair. At the same time, there were some very poignant and touching moments in American Hustle, and many scenes had a quiet sophistication to them. At one point, two characters start to reflect with regret on how they ended up where they are in life. Bale often cuts a tragic figure. But then a joke would appear out of nowhere about hair curlers. It almost felt as though an early draft of this film might have been more serious, but then another writer was brought in to overlay some gags to give the story an extra dimension. I’m not saying a film isn’t allowed to cover a broad emotional range, but in this instance something wasn’t right. Watching American Hustle felt as though I was being asked to eat a plate of chips, jelly beans and crispy aromatic duck at once: individually I love those things, but if were ever to eat them together I think I’d feel a bit weird.

My final point of criticism is tricky to describe – I felt unsatisfied with the film in some way, but I can’t put my finger on what it was. I think the script was perhaps a little loose, not capitalising on its twist as well as it could have, and overall there was just something missing – that extra depth that would have helped me have more of an emotional engagement with the story. It was fine, but not a film I would ever feel compelled to watch again. Indifferent.

And this is what bothers me. For a film so average, why the hell is it getting all this praise from everyone else? Well, I’ve had a bit of a think about this, and there are two possibilities:

1)      I’m wrong about American Hustle, and it is actually brilliant. This is perfectly possible. I’m wrong about a lot of things, like that time I thought it would be a good idea to buy Paul Blart: Mall Cop on DVD.

2)      I’m right. American Hustle looks great on paper with its heavyweight cast, retro setting and acclaimed director, and critics are too intimidated by their own expectations to turn in an honest review.

So there we go. I know I’m in the minority with this one, but American Hustle just didn’t do it for me. I didn’t find it offensively awful like The Hobbit, but nor did it blow my mind afterwards. It was fine. It was okay. It did a job. And it will win some awards.

But will we be talking about it in five years time? Only time will tell.

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