Friday, December 27, 2013

American Hustle: Missed it by that much

"American Hustle" has been getting some of the best reviews of the holiday season, and is an almost certain nominee for the Best Picture Oscar.  Acting nominations for Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and even Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner wouldn't surprise me.  I suppose even Bradley Cooper could pull one out of the hat, but we'll talk about that in a minute.

First things first - I enjoyed it. The problem?  I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected, and the problems I had with it keep me from placing it in the "great" category.  For the sake of comparison, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," director David O. Russell's two most recent flicks, resonated more with me.  And that's a shame, because the material in "American Hustle" is ripe for the pickings, and I left the theater with a vague feeling that Russell had missed too many opportunities. 

Loosely based on the ABSCAM sting of the late '70s, the movie does a great job of evoking that era, and the "styles" and fashions of late seventies New York City and New Jersey. There's a lot moral ambiguity on display, not unlike that which Sidney Lumet explored in his magnificent "Prince of the City" (admittedly, one of my all-time favorite movies).  The FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper is a self-absorbed prick, and it doesn't take long for the viewer to begin actively rooting against his quest to make a name for himself by snagging some big names in his little caper.  All of the other protagonists are indeed breaking the law in some form or fashion, but none of it feels serious enough to warrant a full-scale FBI operation, a viewpoint well-expressed by the Louis C.K. character, Cooper's immediate supervisor in the bureau.  But again like "Prince of the City," the whole thing takes on a life of its own when someone higher up in the bureau, looking to make a name for himself, green-lights the deal.

All of the players acquit themselves well, but I was most impressed with Bale's rumpled con man, Adams as his partner, and Renner as a politician trying to do all the right things in exactly the wrong ways.  Cooper, I thought, was overwrought in his role, with his big moments screaming "ACTING!"  But for all the talent on display in the leads, it is Robert DeNiro, in a scene that can't last more than 5 minutes, who steals the show as a calm, truly malevolent mob veteran from Miami.  It's always nice to have a reminder that he still has it, and here he does, in spades.

Can you criticize a movie for not being as good as it could have been?  Perhaps that's not being fair, but that's where I am on "American Hustle."

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