The Empty Balcony: American Hustle

Five minutes into American Hustle, I realized I probably was not going to like the film. I stuck around for the next two hours, but the film never grabbed me. It has been praised by critics, but I consider myself kin to the many other viewers who left the film feeling apathetic. Us emotionless millions, unmoved by a film with such heavyweights, such ACTING — we are legion.

Directed by David O. Russell, American Hustle is about a pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), who are forced to work with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), or face jail time for their scamming. Their little sting operation eventually targets politicians and, well, that’s it. Many people have complained that it’s not all that easy to point to a coherent storyline in this film. I never had a hard time following the plot. I just found that telling a story was this film’s secondary purpose. Showcasing the actors was the first.

Joining Bale, Adams, and Cooper are Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. Who they play is unimportant. It’s merely necessary that they are in this movie. If that’s not enough talent for the discerning viewer, Robert De Niro is in the film, too.

I grew weary early on while watching. For some viewers, being able to witness the main cast members ply their trade is a gift from the film gods. But for me, it felt like a chore. I couldn’t stop picking apart every scene, trying to spot the improvisations and contrast them with the moments where everyone stayed on script. I felt like I was watching the most exclusive acting class of the 21st century. It was a display, a showcase of ability. And since none of the cast ever seemed to disassociate themselves from the craft of acting, it was impossible to suspend disbelief. The viewer is let backstage, behind the curtain, making it impossible to see the film as anything but fake.

There are some weak spots in the performances, as well. Christian Bale was miscast. His character was too dependent on hiding his face behind big glasses and ridiculous hair. I suppose it was meant as a transformation, but all it really did was remind me that, sometimes, Hollywood makes ridiculous decisions when famous people are cast to play characters based on real people. This was James Brolin as Pee-wee Herman.

The other weak spot was Jennifer Lawrence. However, I’m not sure it’s completely her fault. She plays Irving’s wife, but the character is superfluous. There is no need for Irving to have a love interest other than Sydney. It adds nothing to the movie but running time. Lawrence plays the character of the hot, neglected, blonde trophy wife, something of a trope in films such as this. I’m reminded of Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street or Sharon Stone in Casino. These roles seem to be designed specifically for a woman actor to display her range. She can cry, she can laugh, she can be both slutty and demure, and somewhere along the way, a bottle of pills will make an appearance. This character is the exact opposite of the manic pixie dream girl. Instead of being the lead’s muse, she is his burden. In American Hustle, she is the viewer’s burden. Any actress who is serious about her career has to have a role like this on her resume. Jennifer Lawrence already has her Oscar, so I’m sure there are many actresses in Hollywood who hate the fact they didn’t get cast in the role. In fact, I bet every time Jennifer Lawrence gets cast in a movie, somewhere Blake Lively is smashing up a hotel room.

Films that take place in the recent past, as American Hustle does, also overload on nostalgia, with the past becoming a bright and shiny fever dream, hardly indicative of what life was really like. For example, I have some memories of the late 1970s. Really it’s no more than a few snippets. But from what I remember, and what I can glean from photographs and film taken in that decade, the characters in American Hustle are not wearing 1970s clothes. They are wearing 1970s costumes. There is quite a difference.

I didn’t like American Hustle because there is no movie here. In choosing to focus solely on the performances over plot, Russell was gambling that those performances would be strong enough to carry the film. He was wrong. There’s enough plot to keep the film from looking like an audition tape, but striking a balance between plot and performances would have vastly improved this film. Gangsters, con artists, FBI agents, and corrupt politicians. Exactly why such compelling characters took such a back seat to the people that played them is beyond me.