Review - 'American Hustle' Lives Up To The Hype

Posted: Dec 24 2013, 8:06am CST | by


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Review - 'American Hustle' Lives Up To The Hype
Photo Credit: Forbes

Director David O. Russell continues an incredible streak of great filmmaking with American Hustle, which looks sure to garner lots of Oscar nominations next month, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as several acting nominations, costume design nods, and perhaps a screenwriting nomination. The film also appears set at the very least a nice comfortable box office run, and is enjoying early success with nominations and/or wins from a wide array of the more prestigious awards groups.

Opening December 13th in limited release and going into wide national release this past weekend, American Hustle has amassed $22 million worldwide (with foreign openings limited to Australia at the moment, and accounting for about $2 million) and came in fourth for the weekend, which was a very nice position for the film. It goes into wider release in foreign markets in January, after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reveal the official Oscar nominations on January 16th.

For comparison, Russell’s previous film Silver Linings Playbook (which also starred Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) spent weeks in limited release building a following and positive critical buzz before going into wider release, taking six weeks to reach $20 million as the number of theaters slowly grew. Its first week in wide release brought in roughly half of what American Hustle rustled up this past weekend. But over time, the strong buzz and the Oscar nominations — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress — drove the film to more than $236 million at the box office.

The popularity of the cast, particularly Lawrence, should help it when it does open in foreign markets, not to mention marketing that notes its success in the States and its many accolades during awards season. If it’s capable of pulling in $80-100 million domestic, as I think it should be able to do, then I’d expect it to match that overseas, for a potential tally in the $200 million range, give or take several million.

Since they kept the production budget at a very modest $40 million, that means the bar for financial success should be relatively easy to hurdle, especially since the film’s already made back half of that in the first weekend of wide release. My guess is we’re looking at a final box office performance of at least $160 million globally, which would be four times the film’s production budget, meaning American Hustle should do very well for itself.

Earlier this year when I interviewed David O. Russell about Silver Linings Playbook, he told me this:

“I realized my favorite people in my favorite movies are riveting, raw characters … That’s the stuff that I remember, that’s the stuff that’s burned into my cinema mind. So that’s what I wanted to do. Not overthink it, not be ponderous, but really go for it from the gut and love the characters unconditionally and go with them pedal to the metal. Because that’s what I find right away emotionally grabs you, that’s what’s captivating emotionally, and that’s what riveting to me.”

Those sentiments about loving the characters for who they are, presenting them absolutely in uncompromising, bare-like-a-nerve fashion to let their emotions and motivations and drives propel the narrative in ways that will pull the viewer in and make you want to spend more time with them, are all the same approach Russell uses in American Hustle to great effect. I could’ve spent many more hours watching these people interact, living their lives, struggling and trying to find ways to connect and a path through whatever stands in their way. The story itself is engrossing, the plots and plots within plots are engaging, but it’s the characters who really demand your attention and make you pay attention.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams give incredible lead performances drawing you into these characters’ lives until you fully invest in the outcome. They are crooks, they caused a lot of people a lot of grief, and they are far from admirable in any literal sense; but Bale and Adams portray all of that with absolute clarity yet still also display such painful humanity and dig down to find the need and hope and sense of loyalties that make them into complicated people who can’t merely be written off as “evil” and “bad” in any simplistic way whatsoever.

This is storytelling at its best, because it’s character at its best. It proves you can have sympathetic people who are also responsible for very bad things, and that nobody is 100% defined at all times by only the worst things they’ve done, any more than they are defined entirely by the best things they’ve done. To find those kernels of redemption in a sea of dishonesty, and to find the seeds of betrayal growing alongside a renewed sense of responsibility and shame, is the kind of complex sincerity I love in a movie’s depiction of characters.

Bradley Cooper seems to just get better and better with every film, which says a lot because he was already remarkable in so many previous films — notably, in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook and earlier this year in The Place Beyond the Pines. Here we get someone you’ll feel like you should root for, until you feel like you shouldn’t, but all the while as you’re pulled back and forth by your feelings about him there is always an underlying recognition of a man who is convinced of the rightness of what he’s doing and who wants everyone else to see him as always trying to do the right thing (even when he isn’t, which becomes increasingly frequent despite the fact he doesn’t realize it). You can’t help liking him, but you also can’t help disliking him, and just when one or the other sentiment sets in you will grow uneasy about it and something sneaks in to make you second-guess your feelings.

Lawrence makes you feel every bit of her withering angst and manic desperation as it bursts from beneath her bravado. Lonely all of the time, scared all of the time, she’s watched for years as the one person who is supposed to love her and take care of her treated her as unnecessary and unwanted. Lawrence gives her her own sense of dignity and self-righteousness, so to speak, so that even at her most outrageous and dangerous we can see in her eyes this burning need for someone to just tell her she isn’t worthless, that she’s important and loved. Her combination of strength and vulnerability, of charming bluntness and hilarious lack of awareness at times, turns this supporting role into one of the most heartfelt of the entire story.

Jeremy Renner plays a New Jersey mayor who, despite accepting a bribe, is portrayed as an honest man caught up in a scam because of his willingness to deal with unsavory, dishonest people if he thought it was a shortcut to getting the help he wanted for his city. Renner perfectly captures the casual and personal relationships the mayor develops with the people he thinks are helping him create a plan to save New Jersey, and as the story progresses you can’t help but feel a sense of dread for this man and what will happen when it’s time to pay the bill. There’s no doubt he took a bribe, and no doubt he didn’t even blink when it was time to do business with organized crime figures, and yet you’ll still see him as a product of his time and environment, someone who was doing the best he could with the hand he was dealt. Renner instills in him an eager — maybe even desperate — naivety that never strains credulity, you really understand why he believes it’s going to work out and that makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch as he interacts with Bale.

Did I mention how laugh-out-loud funny the whole thing is? It takes a special sort of character-driven film to be so very human and so very funny all at the same time. It’s a testament to their confidence that Russell and his cast are willing and able to find humor in situations lesser teams would play purely for melodrama or thrills.

American Hustle joins Short Term 12, 12 Years A Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, Don Jon, and Prisoners on my list of the year’s best films, meaning the ones I’d nominate for Best Picture (there are still a few films I need to see that could join that list — especially Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, and All Is Lost). David O. Russell has hit his stride and continues to create some of the most interesting, entertaining, and emotionally resonant stories and characters in cinema today.

The film has received widespread acclaim, and it’s well-deserved. However, I’d like to now take a moment to address one of the negative reviews of the film, since that particular negative review specifically references those of us giving the movie positive reviews.

Variety’s Peter Debruge insists that critics praising this film have been “conned,” that we’ve all been duped somehow into liking the film and that our impressions of it as great filmmaking are just not really accurate or intelligent — he could deny he’s calling the praise unintelligent, but he specifically notes that those praising it are often “otherwise intelligent,” so the implication is clear. To which I’d respond Mr. Debruge’s primary criticisms of the film don’t even make any sense. He speaks as if the film’s story wanders around incoherently, as if it seems to make up its own story as it goes along, and as if there’s just some bunch of random nonsense filling it up that leads nowhere and confuses the plot. Well, sorry, but that sounds a lot more like someone who just didn’t understand or didn’t pay enough attention, because the story is pretty consistent and you can see some of the turns being set up well in advance. The idea that these characters are somehow entirely inconsistent in any way remotely damaging to the story or to the integrity of the filmmaking is just nonsensical in the extreme, too.

Jennifer Lawrence is singled out by Debruge for complaint about supposedly “making things up as she goes along,” one of the more glaringly wrongheaded claims the reviewer makes in light of how her character and actions are some of the most internally consistent and rational (in the context of her own worldview and desires) of anyone in the film. There’s little doubt about her motivations at any time, and while you might not see some of the more “oh my God” instances coming, once they happen it’s not only perfectly fitting, you’ll also half-wonder why you didn’t anticipate it all along. The film critic also dismisses one Lawrence scene, and I assume he didn’t connect it to the specific direction of her arc and see the relevance of the scene — a sign that his review and impressions of the film are every bit as sloppy and half-formed as he accuses the film of being.

Likewise, Debruge’s insistence that Christian Bale’s comb-over hairdo somehow is on the verge of upstaging him through the entire film, due to the opening sequence showing him styling said hairdo, is hyperbole for the sake of trying to defend an even bigger overarching hyperbolic assertion about the film’s supposed troubles. That hairdo is mentioned a few times in the film, but the fact is for the vast majority of the film unless you’re explicitly looking for it, you’re unlikely to even notice it because it just looks like his hair is parted a bit messily. It in fact looks like they do the comb-over scene at the start, and then revert to Bale just having his regular hair parted and styled a bit messy to maintain the slight impression of a comb-over, and even then the impression isn’t that noticeable except when you’re seeing the back of his head. Besides, with a performance as exceptional as Bale gives here, the claim that a hairdo overshadows it is ridiculous.

Turn the page to keep reading my review of American Hustle, and why Variety’s Peter Debruge is wrong!

I’d also argue Debruge’s attempt to claim Russell is portraying women in narrowly sexualized and negative ways demonstrates remarkable misinterpretation and misrepresentation of entire characterizations and scenes in the film. The single most sympathetic portrayal of a character — the smartest one, the most loyal one, the strongest one, and the one we are in fact most likely to feel a hint to root for — is Amy Adams. Bale’s character is dishonest, cheating, abusive, and a dupe with a falsely inflated sense of self. That Debruge could so strikingly misunderstand those characters, and that he saw those characters and took them as some sort of glorification of the male alongside a woman who is either just a sex object or a “harpy,” speaks volumes about the problem with his review. His talk of the outfits being too revealing makes me just think he needs to go get a book of photos from the 1970s and inform himself a bit about fashions of the period, particularly among people in these sorts of circles.

Debruge’s entire review frankly feels more inspired by reactionary opposition to the universal acclaim, and seems not a little bit inspired by some pre-existing sentiments he has about director Russell (about whom he makes more than a few rudely worded remarks and implications about the filmmaker’s mental health). There are probably plenty of reasons someone might not like this film, might not enjoy it, and might criticize it — Debruge just didn’t really make a good case that anything he said falls into those categories, and in fact presents arguments that fall flat because they’re so contrary to the reality of the film’s content.

David O. Russell has made an amazing film here, filled with some of the most complicated, well-developed, and fascinating characters to grace the screen this year. Debruge makes smirky reference to Russell having a “shtick” and that he’s the only critic to notice it, but he then goes on to reveal that this so-called “shtick” is basically that Russell lets actors improvise some of their scenes and doesn’t shoot as many takes as some other directors. If your mind isn’t exactly blown by that revelation, and if it doesn’t sound problematic, then congratulations, you’re reasonable. Russell and his cast use the improvisations masterfully, and it all ends up true to their characters while telling a compelling story.

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Source: Forbes

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