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IS AMERICAN HUSTLE A CON JOB?

EYEWEAR'S FILM CRITIC JAMES A GEORGE THINKS AMERICAN HUSTLE, DESPITE ITS GOLDEN GLOBE FOR BEST COMEDY OR MUSICAL IS A DUD.

Clearly, American Glasses
American Hustle is the story of a great con. No, not the film’s plot, which has the wow factor of the BBC’s mediocre television show from some years ago, Hustle. The con is the plenitude of awards this film is getting. I don’t want to imply that director David O. Russell is the artist behind these cons, but he has certainly been lucky these couple years. Silver Linings Playbook was released around this time last year, and also got multiple awards nominations despite being a very plain feat of moviemaking albeit with an enjoyable script. Driven by this popularity, it seems Russell has abandoned the quirky traditions that made his earlier films so interesting under some pretence that he is now John Cassavettes; sacrificing plot in favour of caricatures – I mean, characters.
            Of course, this is a joy for the actors! We get to see Christian Bale as we’ve never seen him before; plump and bald. And we get to see Jennifer Lawrence doing the cleaning in marigolds while singing old Bond themes. Bring on the crazy characters – by all means! But don’t then go on to make all the genuinely funny moments at the expense of the characters we’re meant to be fond of, surely? That’s not to suggest this is a darkly comic tragedy, rather that the comedic aspects rely on us to laugh at the characters’ weaknesses rather than root for them because of their strengths. It’s quite demoralising being encouraged to laugh at pathetic people!
            Couple this with some of the worst cinematography in recent memory and the on-going running time and this film really starts straining. Its influences are rightfully on its sleeves, Boogie Nights, Goodfellas, etcetera. But what separates Paul Thomas Anderson and Scorsese’s use of the freeing steadicam (allowing the camera to move in any direction vertically and horizontally without wobble) was their understanding of Kubrick’s purpose of invention: to create visual moments unique to cinema, and thus to be used with purpose. If Russell’s purpose was to constantly repeat the same fast track over and over, and then meander around the scene without aim or focus and leave us sea sick, bravo! Of course, a camera is allowed to just observe, the most powerful films are usually done with this “quiet lens” that isn’t interrupted with editing, but how many times do we have to look at a characters’ gesticulating hands, or spin around as he or she talks – we’ve seen the wigs, they’re great, stop highlighting them, David.

            But camerawork can largely be forgiven if there is a good story and compelling characters, which is precisely why Silver Linings Playbook was a success: no matter how unadventurous the film was, we had characters to believe in. Here Russell seems to have got characters confused with actors. He seems to have lost any control and indulged his actors by letting them act out scenes in multiple improvised ways, and then stitched together scenes where every one is turned up to 11. The audience don’t really have any sense of a real person in front of them. If the original vision was to be super clever and to never let the audience truly know these con artists since they’re so often in disguise they don’t really know one another properly either, then Russell has failed here too since there is simply no revealed depth. Like the film’s emphasise on its character’s wigs and comb-overs, American Hustle is all surface.
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