Bad hair decade: American Hustle **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2013)

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While I was waiting for the lights to go down at a packed sneak preview for David O. Russell’s American Hustle, a Gandalf-looking fellow wearing what can only be described as a Jed Clampett hat squeezed in next to me, gave me a nudge and asked, “So, what’ve ya heard about this one…is it kinda like American Gigolo?” (They always find me…I don’t know how, but they do).

Now praying for the lights to go down, I forced a polite smile and said “No, I don’t believe it’s about male hustlers. It’s about con artists, although it does take place in the 1970s.” He paused for a moment of contemplation. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “so it’s kinda like Boogie Nights?”

While stealing a quick visual check of the house for any other available seats, I replied “No, I don’t think it’s about the porn industry. I understand that it’s based on the Abscam scandal…if you remember it.” Huge mistake. “Ah! We must be about the same age! What year were ya born? Tell me, do ya have a good home life?”

Mercifully, I was saved by the lights.

My new BFF may have inadvertently stumbled onto something. It turns out that American Hustle actually is one of those “kinda like” movies. It’s kinda like GoodFellas, just not as stylish. It’s kinda like Jackie Brown, just not as clever. It’s kinda like Married to the Mob, just not as funny. And if you’re expecting All the President’s  Men, fuhgettaboutit. Consequently, it is neither a candy nor a breath mint.

It’s best described as New Yorkers screaming at each other for an interminable 2 hours and 18 minutes (with guest conniptions from the Jersey side). After the winking disclaimer “Some of this actually happened“, we are introduced to sleazy con man Irving (Christian Bale), who preys on marks with the help of his “British” girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams). When the two stingers get stung by an undercover FBI operation, the hotshot agent in charge (Bradley Cooper) offers them a deal if they help him catch bigger fish by conning a mobbed-up Camden, NJ mayor (Jeremy Renner) into serving as unsuspecting facilitator.

The “sting” here is on the audience, because Russell and his co-writer Eric Singer, while proving quite skilled at window-dressing this as some kind of rollicking, vaguely sociopolitical 70s period piece, use the retro vibe as sucker bait to string us along waiting for something interesting to happen; by the time we realize we’ve been had, the credits roll. There is far too little focus on story or character development and too much fixation on fashion, furniture and hair (Bale’s Rube Goldberg comb-over, Cooper’s perm and Renner’s pompadour deserve their own credits).

And while I’m nitpicking…about that music. While I love those super hits of the 70s as much as anyone else, if the story is set in 1978, why are 90% of the songs on the soundtrack from the early 70s?

It’s a drag to see such a good cast wasted. Bale, Adams, Cooper, Renner and Jennifer Lawrence (playing Bale’s estranged wife with aplomb) are skilled, but even the best actors need some direction every now and then (like when to dial it down to a dull roar, an instruction that apparently went either unspoken or unheeded). So don’t be conned.

Have a nice day!

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