It is with great regret that I write to inform you that I cannot count myself among the fans of David O. Russell's American Hustle.
Given the outstanding critical and popular response to the holiday movie du jour (or at least the one you can see with your family), I found myself over the last several days in that awful position of trying to defend my contrarian opinion on a well-liked film. "It's because I had just seen GoodFellas the night before and nothing could compare to that (especially not a movie that's so clearly indebted to it)." "I was tired and had a headache through the whole thing, so no wonder I couldn't enjoy it." "The audience was pretty much dead so that really brought down the mood in the theater."—all very valid reasons, but surely there might be something inherent to the movie that left me feeling vague and unexcited when I walked out?
To keep from spoiling anything for those of you have yet to fork over ~$12 to your local theater of choice, I'll refrain from making specific comments about the plot. Except to say that, well, the plot's not really the reason to go see this one. American Hustle isn't constructed in the way many other movies are (see: Inside Llewyn Davis, which I had also seen the day before and thought was excellent). Rather, it's more of a living, breathing organism given life by the four/five characters at its center. The screenplay doesn't exert too much energy trying to hit all the standard plot points of a movie or even just trying to make sense because it's much more interested in giving its characters a giant, 70s-themed sandbox in which to play around and make a mess.
Going in to the movie, I was expecting a sharp, screwball dramedy that wouldn't be afraid to go unhinged. What I got was a sloppy—drunken sloppy, which I guess is the better of the sloppies?—occasionally amusing flick that stretched on a bit too long without ever going off the rails. I sat through most of the film waiting for someone to do something totally outrageous and send the audience up in roaring fits of laughter, but O. Russell evidently had other plans. Even when the actors are clearly having a blast, it still seemed to me that the film was taking itself too seriously, and consequently was inhibiting itself from being as crazy good as I felt it could have been.
The acting is probably the best excuse to see the movie: Christian Bale disappears into his role (I had to keep reminding myself afterwards how different it was from other roles I've seen him play), Jennifer Lawrence will steal the show, Bradley Cooper (in hair curlers especially) is a riot, and Amy Adams—though criminally underutilized in the second half of the film—manages well in what appears to be her first major leading role since Enchanted. Everyone brings their A-game, and it's unfortunate that my audience didn't bring theirs because a lot of the funniest moments of character interaction got little-to-zero response from that bunch of dull New Englanders. But actually: no one even applauded at the end (not even the older folks on the other end of the theater who, admittedly, sounded like they were having a blast and made the otherwise unbearably stoic atmosphere in auditorium 13 more tolerable on a few short occasions).
(Mild spoilers ahead) The more I let the movie sink in this week, the more I was able to sort out the high points. There are some genuinely very amusing parts—pretty much every scene Jennifer Lawrence is in, Adams' dry line delivery ("Don't show it to your Spanish friends") and over-the-top fake accent, the unexpected yet entirely welcome use of the Arabic version of White Rabbit. And then there's the almost inexplicable scene where Adams and Cooper go clubbing (remember: it's the 70s, so ~DISCO!!!~) leading up to a steamy ladies' room-stall confrontation culminating in the ineradicable image of Amy Adams, squatting on the toilet seat, letting out a piercing scream of uncertain origins (sexual ecstasy? or....something more foul?) (I'll stop right there). That's the closest the movie ever comes to going totally off the rails, and I would have enjoyed it much more if it had kept up the WHAT-THE-HELL-IS-GOING-ON high of that scene instead of dissolving into the what-the-hell-is-going-on murkiness that sits over the rest of the movie. (Well, I suppose there's also that J-Law karaoke house cleaning scene, but if you blink you'll miss it.)
(End spoilers; resume your normal positions please) I will probably watch American Hustle again in a year after it has inevitably swept the Oscars in a landmark year for upsets (well, hopefully not) and the internet backlash begun apace. Under new circumstances, I will probably enjoy it more than I did the first time around. But for now, I have no qualms admitting that O. Russell's loose, unstructured style just didn't do anything for me in a year when formally-structured or otherwise well-plotted screenplays managed to be both polished (Inside Llewyn Davis); poetic (12 Years a Slave); and, yes, even spontaneous and a little bit messy (Before Midnight). Screenplays and stories matter to me, and if that's going to be the weak link in your movie then you're just headed for trouble. And, apparently, mass critical acclaim and Oscars all around.