American Hustle (2014)

American Hustle (2014)

I like it when a director shows favouritism towards working with certain individuals. I really believe it brings the best out of the actors. Perhaps one of the most notorious directors for this is Quentin Tarantino, who makes no great secret of the fact that he favours using Samuel L. Jackson at every opportunity, as well as Uma Thurman and Christoph Waltz when the opportunities arise. Another pairing that’s recently come to light is Neil Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley who will soon embark on their third outing together. So, when I saw the billing for David O. Russell‘s American Hustle, I won’t lie; I was excited. He’s seemingly done a great job of welding together the casts of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook to deliver his latest outing. How does Russell‘s Frankenstein’s Monster turn out though?

American Hustle (2014)

The cast of American Hustle is like a glorious chef’s recipe: 2 parts The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), stirred with 2 parts Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), folded in with new turns from Jeremy Renner and a host of others. What’s delivered? A delicious slice of 1970’s Americana revolving around blagging, conning and a whole host of escalating events. To break it down, Irving (Christian Bale) is a con-artist – small time – but a con-artist all the same. He takes this up a notch when he falls for Sydney (Amy Adams), who completes his criminal duo perfectly. The first problem? Sydney isn’t his wife. Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is his wife. The second problem? Well, don’t try and con an undercover FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), as you’ll get enveloped into working with one wild agent. And third? Don’t make friends with your next con; especially when he’s the Mayor (Jeremy Renner)… Believe me, there are numerous other problems for our cast, but that would be spoiling things somewhat!

American Hustle (2014)

The strength of American Hustle is clearly in its cast, but the same too can be said of its plotting. But let’s first dwell on the performances. It’s no secret that The Phage is a huge fan of Bradley Cooper. We tell you this every time we see him in a film, and indeed, tell you at numerous other times too. Cooper is again on sterling form, with a role that’s got more in common with The Place Beyond The Pines more than his “typical” Hangover-esque portrayals. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even fair to use The Hangover roles to describe Cooper any more; he’s done far too many other films. Similarly, Christian Bale is on great form too, clearly relishing the role. Likewise, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence deliver solidly in their performances. I’m a little surprised to see Lawrence up for BAFTAs and Globes with her performance here, which isn’t as captivating as that of Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s mainly because she’s not strictly a main character here. I was pleasantly taken aback by Jeremy Renner’s turn here too. He’s new to the David O. Russell stable, but his role was interesting and deep.

Indeed, it’s this level of “deepness” that makes American Hustle as interesting as it is. It’s not some ham-fisted attempt at a con film, as each character has flaws and dilemmas. It’s not Oceans Eleven. Thankfully. The plot continues to thrust forwards, leaving you wondering just who is going to come out on top. I like the fact that films don’t necessarily end happily nowadays, as this introduces a lot of guesswork on the audience’s behalf as they try and second-guess where the film’s ultimately going to end up.

American Hustle (2014)

Having said all of this, the film isn’t perfect. It’s got a meaty run time, that perhaps almost outstretched its welcome. Considering I’m a fan of all people involved in the movie, that says something. Quite what I’m trying to say? I’m not sure; it’s just that there’s fat that could otherwise have been trimmed here. Even just a swift 10-15 minutes hacked off the run time could have done wonders. That’s not to say it makes the film back… it just stops it being a “classic”.

American Hustle is a wonderfully vivid movie set against the backdrop of the 1970’s. David O. Russell contnues his directorial run to deliver a beautifully written and shot film, albeit with a little extra fat than was perhaps absolutely necessary. As awards’ season looms large, I wonder whether we could see any wins for American Hustle; it’s certainly a great film, but in a year with so many enormously strong contenders, can it walk away with any of the big ones? Time will tell.

All of this just makes me interested to see what David O. Russell will deliver next, and who he’ll be using in his next ensemble piece. Although Nailed is cited as being his next production, it deviates somewhat from the more serious / likely to get acclaim films that he’s become synonymous with in recent years. We just want more Bradley Cooper, but who didn’t see that coming from us?!

Phage Factor:

4 Star

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2013)

“You don’t go full retard.” These were Robert Downey Jr.‘s words in 2008’s Tropic Thunder. In the film he was referring to Ben Stiller‘s character Simple Jack, who was severely mentally handicapped to a charicature-style level. But the blacked up Downey Jr. raised a good point… it’s hard for Hollywood to tackle mental illness in an effective way, especially when you try to throw comedy into the mix. You don’t want the audience laughing at an illness, nor do you want them feeling ashamed of themselves for doing it either… but you do want them to laugh. So, enter Silver Linings Playbook – the latest film to tackle the tricky problem. But does it succeed?

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the post-psychiatric ward recovery of Pat (Bradley Cooper), as he goes about trying to improve himself to rekindle his marriage with his adulterous wife. But as he tries to get his life back on track, he runs (literally) into Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) – a girl who also has some of her own issues stemming from a difficult few years, who tries to help him in his pursuit. OK, so far so good… in fact, if you strip away the mental illness issue, you could probably say it sounds quite formulaic and generic. And it probably is to a certain extent. But that would be a disservice to what is a truly fantastic movie.

I’m a big fan of Bradley Cooper. A big fan. However, one criticism that could be levied at him in recent years is the type of role he’s cast in – the “cool” guy. See The Hangover, Limitless and The A-Team for example. But this is different and really allows him to flex his acting chops in an entirely new direction, which he runs with. Pat is a disturbed character who combines rage, tranquility and confusion as he tries to deal with his life post-incident that got him committed to psychiatric care. All of this is delivered with aplomb alongside some well delivered comedic moments. I was really taken with Cooper every time he was on-screen. A really engrossing performance.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Cooper & Lawrence: Effortless chemistry.

And whilst we’re talking about performances, let’s talk about Jennifer Lawrence. Wow. Now, I thought she was a good actress and her roles to date have been OK, but they’ve never really startled me. But Silver Linings Playbook really brings her to the front of my mind now, as she really owns her roles as the emotionally fragile Tiffany. The best parts of the film are when her and Cooper are firing back and forth at one another – not only do they deliver some of the funniest moments of the film, but they also harbor some of the most beautiful scenes too. Despite the fact that Lawrence is only 22 and Cooper is 37, this is never an issue as Lawrence is really acting beyond her years here.

So what of the plot? Although some of it is formulaic, it has enough nail-biting moments to keep you guessing to some degree; much in the same way that The Fighter (David O. Russell‘s last directorial effort) was ultimately predictable but a fantastic film. As I mentioned earlier, some films about mental illness try to incorporate comedic elements and I’m happy to say that Silver Linings Playbook uses them really effectively. Speaking of comedy, it’s great to see Chris Tucker also returning to the screen after a hiatus that has gone on way too long. Why isn’t he in more movies? I really only know him from Jackie Brown and the Rush Hour trilogy, and there’s good reason for that: he’s not been cast in much else. Come on Hollywood – I love this guy. You can ditch your obsession with Chris Rock and bring back Tucker! Although he’s not on screen for large swathes of time, he’s magic when he is. With Tucker you know what you’re going to get – laughs. Man, I miss seeing this guy on my screen.

Tucker! Tucker! Tucker!

Tucker! Tucker! Tucker!

One criticism of the film that could be made is the somewhat mish-mashed nature of the film: emotional one moment, but funny the next. It’s bi-polar, a lot like Cooper‘s character. But I don’t see this as a problem. Its shifts in tone are nowhere near as jarring as those in Due Date – where Zach Galifianakis delivers his comedic lines one second to only break into a very somber speech about his dead father. That was jarring. That was a hard gear change. This film does not have the same problem. It seems to ebb and flow in a very natural manner that never stalls.

And one final parting note – I’ve read that some people are confused by the American Football terminology thrown around in the film. Why? It’s not hard to follow, so don’t worry about that if these opinions concern you. Sure, there’s a lot of focus on football, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film about it. Hell, Moneyball is all about baseball, which I know very little about aside from the fact you have t-shirt cannons and drink a lot of beer whilst some guy spent 3 days swinging a bat and missing. But the fact it was about baseball and I have little knowledge of it had no bearing on my enjoyment of that film. The same is true here.

Silver Linings Playbook is one long constant silver lining. The chemistry and performances from Cooper and Lawrence are truly fantastic, with both of them showing acting skills that they’ve not had on display in recent efforts. Some will argue Cooper‘s performance is better, some will argue for Lawrence, but in my eyes they’re both on a par and really make this movie what it is. Although the plot isn’t too cerebral, it throws up enough “will it / won’t it” moments to keep you engaged with the film.

It sounds like Cooper and Lawrence have heeded Downey Jr.‘s somewhat non-PC advice from Tropic Thunder. The film deals with mental illness: not in a mocking way, but in a very endearing manner. It acknowledges the rage and downsides, but also fuses them with some truly tender and lovely moments. And once again, let’s hear it for Chris Tucker – I want to start the campaign for his return. Either with him coming back to scream “Leeeee, Leeeee you crazy!!” in Rush Hour 4, or in some other comedic vehicle. The world needs more of him. We should always go full Tucker.

Phage Factor:

4 Star