AMERICAN HUSTLE: Don’t Put Metal in the Science Oven

American Hustle quad poster

American Hustle (2013) – Directed by David O. Russell – Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Peña, Elisabeth Rohm, and Robert DeNiro.


AMERICAN HUSTLE is the most confounding movie I’ve seen in a very long time. I kinda actively hate the movie, while at the same time loving the individual performances. It’s the ultimate version of a film that is far less than the sum of its parts, yet I feel a bit ridiculous saying anything bad about a film where those individual parts are so good.

Christian Bale is brilliant. Amy Adams is brilliant. Bradley Cooper is brilliant. Jeremy Renner is brilliant.

The film is little more than a big ol’ pile of gas sitting beneath some ridiculous hairpieces.

What dooms AMERICAN HUSTLE for me is just how darn slow it moves and how utterly lacking it is in any kind of storytelling passion. The film operates like a play, static in motion and passionate in emotion, and that’s really not enough for me in a film. David O. Russell’s direction is good enough to get these fantastic performances out of his actors, but damned by his pedestrian approach to storytelling. The look of the characters and the force of their performances suggests we’re going to get the cinematic child of Casino and Boogie Nights, but while the acting here is every bit as good, the film is fathoms below not only the heights of Boogie Nights but the should-be-attainable hilltop of Casino.

I say that as if Casino is a terrible movie, where it’s primary fault is that it’s one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser films. While Casino is a far cry from the greatness of GoodFellas, it’s also a far cry from the lackluster visuals and pacing of HUSTLE.

The film opens with Combover (Bale), Redhead (Adams), and Curls (Cooper) trying to bribe Rock-a-Doodle (Renner). The Chanticleer is freaked out by Curls pushing a briefcase across the floor to him and bails, which causes an argument between the FBI Agent and his two criminals. Combover heads off after Rock-a-Doodle, but before he leaves the floor, we’re dropped back in time to see how we got here. That story is slow and tedious, involving Irving (Bale) picking up Sydney (Adams) at a party because they both like Duke Ellington.

Bale gives an outstanding performance as a guy vain enough to spend long minutes in front of the mirror fixing his wild mess of a hairdo into the respectable combover but not so vain he doesn’t mind sitting at a party with his shirt unbuttoned and his gut assaulting the waist of his pants. Adams is equally as brilliant as a former stripper looking to get ahead. At first, she’s repulsed by Irving’s offer to join his con game, but she quickly relents and joins in, falling in love with him despite the presence of Irving’s disaster of a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and a son he loves very much.

HUSTLE is of that brand of movie that wants us to root for the bad guys because they have a good heart and hate on the good guys because they coerce the bad guys into working for them. The difference between Irving and Sydney on the criminal end and Richie (Cooper) on the law end is that Irving and Sydney are better at having restraint. Everyone wants to get ahead, but Richie has no upper limit to how far up the ladder he wants to climb. Originally, Richie wants Irving and Sydney’s help in getting four other con men, but that quickly escalates to politicians and mobsters.

Perhaps the lack of music and fun and movement in HUSTLE is supposed to show the same kind of restraint that the story is championing, but it’s maddening to me how long it takes this film to really get anywhere. There’s far too much time spent with Rosalyn, who we get is a disaster right from her first appearance and remains a disaster right through to the end. She has one shining moment of life when her and Sydney argue in a bathroom about their respective rottenness, but other than that, I cringed every time Rosalyn was on screen.

Amy Adams is every bit Bale’s equal in giving a performance that’s impossible not to watch. Playing both Irving and Richie at various times, I was consistently doubting where her loyalties lied, but then when you see it’s always been Irving, I felt foolish for ever questioning the true love she has for such a flawed person.

As a movie, though, I just didn’t care about much of it. I want to not only like the movie but love it, but I’m neither an actor nor an acting coach, and I need more out of a movie than good performances. I never felt transported to the ’70s, I never felt like Richie was a real person, and I never felt like the film was following the right person. As much as I love what Bale and Adams do here, it’s Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) that held my interest the most. He’s a politician who truly wants to do right by his community, even if he has to commit certain illegal acts to do it. That’s the story I care about. That’s where the shades of grey could have been really explored and given us something special in terms of not only performance, but story.

I feel sorta horrible hating on AMERICAN HUSTLE, but there it is. Great performances, boring movie.

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3 thoughts on “AMERICAN HUSTLE: Don’t Put Metal in the Science Oven

  1. I agree with you that the film is less than the sum of its parts, but I do still tend to think the total result is compelling. I was so rapt in each moment that I did not have time to reflect on how they weren’t really building up to much. It’s funny that you mention Casino and Goodfellas, because I was likewise disappointed in Casino in comparison to Goodfellas. American Hustle similarly pales in comparison to Silver Linings Playbook. I think the problem is with Cooper and Lawrence, who are terrific actors and are quite wonderful in this movie, as Pesci and DeNiro were in Casino, but throw the proper balance of the film off-center by their presence. Casino needed actors unburdened by their legacy with the director and the genre, and Hustle needed actors who would not lead this director to try and create roles that were too expansive for the story he was trying to tell. Christian Bale’s character is SUPPOSED to be the protagonist of this story, and making his antagonists too sympathetic is what keeps the movie from really gathering momentum. I keep thinking of Robert Altman as a point of comparison, because here Russell, like Altman, spends so much time figuring out his characters that he never figures out his story. Everybody is both good and bad that the only one we have sympathy for at the end is the poor science oven: the only character to be doomed through no fault of its own…


    • Thanks for the comments, Pat. I think you articulated something I felt but wasn’t able to get out – that comparison to Altman and how Russell spends so long deciding who he’s got that the story never comes together.


  2. Yeah, this movie never convinced me that it was taking place in the 1970s and that was a large part of my dissatisfaction. Everybody looks like they’re having a ball playing dress-up and pretending they’re in the 70s instead of BEING in the 70s. Know what I mean. You make a good comparison to “Boogie Nights” as that IS a movie that did make me feel like it was taking place in the 70s.

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