Some of the greatest films often start at the end. So let's just get to the point: American Hustle is not better than 12 Years a Slave. It's good. But not better.
It's awards season (SAG, Golden Globes, Oscars, film societies) and nomination chatter has these two movies pitted against one another like the Miami Heat vs. The Indian Pacers in the NBA Finals. Two great films, but only one possible winner.
RELATED REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave
At the moment, both movies are tied in Golden Globe nominations − seven − ranging from acting, to writing, directing, and overall best picture categories. In a last minute attempt to snatch up the ball and score the winning touchdown in Hollywood’s homecoming game, American Hustle, which opens in wide release this week after a limited New York and Los Angeles run, has become the current twinkle of Tinseltown’s fickle, roving eye. And some, easily blinded by pixie dust kicked up by fluffy media prancing along the sidelines, have a case of 20/60 vision; obviously needing corrective lenses to see an accurate reality.
David O. Russell’s bold, exhilarating “American Hustle,” a fictionalized look at the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s, has to be considered alongside “House of Games” and “The Usual Suspects” as one of the great con game movies, as well as one of the most compulsively watchable films of recent memory. - By Adam Mazmanian - Special to the Washington Times
Did he just say, “One of the most compulsively watchable films of recent memory?” Um... No. It's not. That is, unless he suffers from Alzheimer’s or has seen only one movie this year.
Here’s the thing: American Hustle and its nostalgic 70s era feel, with the familiar smell of Martin Scorcese's Italian meatball flavored Goodfellas, immediately sets a recollective tone with hovering voiceovers drifting down from differing character viewpoints.
The story of Hustle is very Jersey, based around Garden State based Bonnie and Clyde con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and former stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). After being busted by the FBI over their fake money loan business, Irving & Sydney are forced into helping the over-eager, power hungry agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), devise a plan to take down casino mobsters and a string of corrupt New Jersey politicians. The film also stars Oscar winners Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito, the dedicated, borderline shady mayor of Camden; and Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s needy, manipulative wife, Rosalyn. Even Robert De Niro makes a small appearance doing what he does best: playing menacing, maniacal Mafioso man, Victor Tellegio.
If you've seen Goodfellas, then yes, American Hustle will at first evoke the kind of giddy happy-to-see-a-good-gangsta-flick emotions that come whenever Joe Pesci or De Niro hit the screen. But in a little over two hours, the movie manages to keep violence to a minimum, with it barely existing at all. Adding the extended positive element of featuring more black faces (about 10 pop up in teeny, tiny, mostly background roles) than you will ever see in any Scorsese film − if Martin allows them at all − Russell's American Hustle comes off like con artists playing hopscotch with the mob and dirty politicians. It’s like a PG, meat free version of mafia made lasagna, smelling of vegetarian cheese and soy meat, with a happy-go lucky ending that wreaks of Disney in spurts. Inspired by a true story, similar to how 12 Years a Slave is based on one, by the end American Hustle loses its believable feel.
The Winner of Most Likely to Make Audiences Believe It Could’ve Really Happened:
12 Years a Slave
Now this is one thing American Hustle has over 12 Years a Slave. With ever so witty, East Coast fast, street-smart, funny dialogue, American Hustle shines. Where the Steve McQueen directed and John Ridley written 12 Years a Slave uses silence to add to the uncomfortable, emotional tension of the journey; American Hustle’s director/co-writer David O. Russell, uses a flurry of often quick, momentarily insightful, and borderline neurotic conversations to push along the layered story line driven by dreams of success and questions of conscience that each character answers through actions. The development came through involving the cast in their roles’ creation, along with a multitude of expected rewrites. “Eric Singer wrote a script that was more procedural,” Russell said of his co-writer, during a post screening Q&A at NYC's AMC Lincoln Square. “I was very interested in the characters’ point of view, of reinvention, and a larger idea of surviving.”
The Winner for Best Screenplay: American Hustle
Things get tough in this category. Where Chiwetel Ejiofor shines as the eloquent free man sold into slavery, Soloman Northup; and Michael Fassbender’s unpredictably psychotic alcoholic rage, as Mr. Epps, makes you jump in your seat; fellow Brit Christian Bale completely disappears behind Bronx born Irving Rosenfeld. From the 50 pounds he gained to create a nasty, hairy gut that drops haphazardly from his unbuttoned shirt, to the oily toupee that looks like it wants to slither off his head and slip into a sewer − Bale will make you forget that he ever played Batman with a whispery, laughable dark voice. Although in American Hustle, his Bruce Wayne alter ego vocal chords do come out at times. But in this film, it kind of works.
Amy Adams − who seemingly goes makeup-less for many of her scenes − pulls a Golden Globe best actress nod mastering subtlety as she easily slips in an out of an English accent that makes you forget it’s part of a con. And Bradley Cooper (who also executive produced American Hustle) exudes awkwardness from the moment his character speaks, to the home he shares with his mother, to the tiny hair rollers he uses to curl his straight mane.
But the real star of American Hustle is Jennifer Lawrence. While some questioned her best actress Oscar win for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence's take on Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Bale's Jersey bred big-haired wife, is on point. Her blasts of fiery, never-ending naggy, wannabe brainiac bonehead persona, will prove to naysayers why she is one of the best young actresses today.
Nominated for a best supporting actress Golden Globe, and rightfully so, Lawrence is better than Lupito Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. Yes, Nyong’o is brilliant and stunningly focused making bold choices that bring admiration and shock to those that find it hard to believe that 12 Years a Slave was her first film role straight out of college.
But in American Hustle, Lawrence’s character choices jump off the screen, nearly dominating each scene she appears. Showing a full range of emotions − from vindictive, jealous anger to funny bumbling homemaker − American Hustle is a showcase of why Oscar voters love Jennifer Lawrence.
The Winner for Best Ensemble Acting: American Hustle
Overall, American Hustle – a borderline gangster picture with a conscious con artist vibe – shows the self-doubting consequences life can bring when instincts are ignored. All of this makes it fun to watch. But when matched up against the intensity of 12 Years a Slave, an epic of conflicting emotions and disturbing visions that stay with you long after leaving the theater − American Hustle can’t compare, being nothing more than an entertaining cinematic experience that you’ll leave in your seat as soon as the credits roll.
The Winner for Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave