American Hustle

It should be better.  The performances are mostly good.  Christian Bale is amazing with a surprisingly big gut and a comb-over, channelling the Robert De Niro of Raging Bull.  Yes, we’re told, Amy Adams can act.  This is the sexiest thing she’s ever done, a complete reinvention of her usual onscreen persona.   But something’s out of wack if that’s the film’s chief claim to fame.

A friend reminded me that David O Russell directs American Hustle, whose previous film is Silver Linings Playbook (review).  They’re worth comparing.

Both have larger than life performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, plus a smaller role for Robert de Niro.     De Niro puts in a brief appearance, a much quieter thug than any he’s shown us heretofore in a long career of mobsters.

I found much to admire in both films.  They achieve a kind of realism by allowing scenes to go on with their own emotional logic, often much longer than you’d expect.  The effect is to create a quirky texture, a sort of soulfulness that is a lot like real life, dragging us into various culs-de-sac, corners where we can get totally lost.

Both films feel longer than they have to be.  Perhaps this is bad? Or maybe it’s because they’re genuinely new & in their originality, forcing a new sort of literacy upon us.

Both films seem to be more a series of intriguing episodes than a unified story.  This makes for great chunks at Oscar-time, fabulous opportunities to be nominated for awards.  But when you get past the trailer & the highlights you see, and then sit down to watch the film, it’s actually less than the sum of its parts.

I can’t help thinking that all this great work should amount  to more, that the deficiency must be mine.  I must be watching this the wrong way, missing something along the way. Maybe i will learn how to read this style, will pick up on a few tropes & stylistic preoccupations that will sustain me.

But then again—in that conversation I alluded to—I found it hard reconciling Bale & de Niro (whose work and big guts I admire very much) and the foppish Cooper.  I like that Russell pushed Cooper further into this foppishness by showing him to us in curlers.  I keep waiting to see the light, but all I see is a very buff handsome young man with beautiful teeth, and not a persuasive performer.  It probably doesn’t help him that he’s sharing the screen with such authentic performers as Adams, Lawrence & Bale.

I will watch it again, seeing if I can find a way through this maze, to make it work for me.  Maybe another film or two from Russell & I will understand his style.  Right now, he has great moments, and has a knack for getting a lot of energy out of his actors.  For that alone I am grateful even if I am puzzled as to why it hasn’t yet gelled for me.

Maybe next time.

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