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Million Dollar Movie

I didn’t buy The Fighter much as a boxing movie and I had a hard time believing some of the characters and scenarios in Silver Lining Playbook but I also enjoyed both movies. Sometimes you aren’t irritated by things that would normally bug the hell out of you. That’s the only way I can figure it–it’s a matter of taste.

Almost everything in first few minutes of American Hustle–a protracted take of Christian Bale gluing fake hair to his head, a slow motion montage set to classic rock music, showy period decor and outfits not to mention everybody’s hair, oh, that hair!–would usually annoy me. But in this case, it didn’t. In these first minutes the mix tape is rolling–from the movie’s signature tune, Duke Ellington’s 1958 recording of “Jeep’s Blues”, to America’s “A Horse with No Name’, to “Dirty Work,” the moody and vibe Steely Dan record. The two rock songs are as obvious (“On the first part of the journey…”) as the hairstyles but they made me happy regardless.



Christian Bale hides underneath an elaborate combover and a big gut. He fidgets with his glasses and at times seems to a pastiche of mannerisms from other actors (Alec Baldwin’s cackle, Robert De Niro’s body language). It’s hard not to be aware of his acting and yet I found this to be the most sympathetic performance. He deadpans his way through many of his scenes and he’s easy to root for. So is Bradley Cooper who plays his nemesis, a slick, ambitious climber, whose sadism in a few scenes suggest Peter Seller’s Claire Quilty. (He’s also funny, like when he does a quick impersonation of his boss–played by an effective Louis C.K.)


Amy Adams is terrific as Bale’s partner and Jennifer Lawrence continues to brighten any movie in which she appears even though her role is small and underwritten (she can’t quite seem to decide on an accent but otherwise gives her part great credibility). The showdown scene between Adams and Lawrence is not something I’ll soon forget. Russell likes women and he takes care to treat them with respect. In one crucial scene, Adams gives an pointed speech and leaves Bale with something to think about. The scene ends with her walking out of the room. As she walks away her full body comes into frame. I waited for Russell to show her ass–the wiggle, to punctuate things–but he cuts just before the wiggle. A subtle choice.

Jeremy Renner ( more good hair) is strong in a supporting role and Robert De Niro is frightening in a cameo. It’s been a long time since I recall being moved by De Niro but I thought he was really good.


American Hustle is a feast of over-the-top moviemaking (anxious, luxuriant). You can’t get away from the movieness of it. The comparisons to Good Fellas might be superficial but they aren’t far-fetched. This isn’t just a 70’s nostalgia movie like Carlito’s Way, or The People vs. Larry Flynt or Candelabra, it belongs to a specific sub-genre that began with Good Fellas and continued with Boogie Nights and Blow. The technique is familiar. Russell’s camera is constantly moving, pushing in, tracking, panning. I’ve read that Russell likes to be in close proximity to his actors, often calling out lines to them as they improvise a scene. The camera is never far away from them, either. You can almost feel Russell in the scene with them. I like how they recorded the voice overs, especially here–there is a breathiness to it that heightens the sense of intimacy.

Much of Russell’s style comes from Scorsese. But if Russell grew up on Casavettes and Altman and Scorsese he’s closer to Preston Struges. His for screwball comedy, especially between men and women, is his most winning trait. For all the yelling and screaming that goes on in his movies, things turn out okay for everyone in Russell’s world. There isn’t one sequence that has the kind of nervy tension of the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights. Russell never makes you that uneasy. For some people, this is where he falls down. I’ve talked to a lot of people who think American Hustle is phony.  And I can see that. But I respond to the pleasures he offers up. They win out.


1 Matt Blankman   ~  Feb 10, 2014 11:24 am

The DePalma and Forman movies you name were so much better than Russell's mess, let alone Goodfellas.

2 Sliced Bread   ~  Feb 10, 2014 11:28 am

Great piece, Alex.
Excellent performances all around, but a so-so movie in my opinion.
I watched a screening copy of it at home and needed two sittings to get through it. Without this particular cast, or without a cast this strong, I think the picuture is a little dull.

3 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 10, 2014 11:30 am

I loved Sean Penn in "Carlito's Way." One of his best performances.

4 Matt Blankman   ~  Feb 10, 2014 11:45 am

[3] Agreed, and it's also one of Pacino's best from that era. I love him in that and the two Michael Mann movies, and beyond that in the 90s, I just think of him yelling a lot.

BTW, I enjoyed your piece - I think you covered a lot of what is enjoyable about the movie. I just didn't think it hung together in any deeply interesting way. Loved Renner and Lawrence. In fact, I kept thinking I'd watch a whole other movie just about Renner as a well-meaning machine pol who goes south.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 10, 2014 11:54 am

4) That could have been interesting, the Renner thing, I mean. I liked the tension between Bale and Cooper and especially between Adams and the two male leads.

When Bale plays Adams the Duke Ellington song at the party, that's sort of the silliness of the whole movie. First shot is from overhead of a record player. Cut to: a tracking shot in on Adams, lying on a couch, looking at the back of the album cover. Cut to Bale sitting in a chair, his gut hanging out. His hands shake on the beat as if to say, "Ta-Da" big gut, big acting, get it?

I don't know if it was mean to be a joke but that's how I took it.

As for "Carlito's Way" I thought Pacino was good but the Penelope Anne Miller love story spoiled the movie for me. She was fine but I found the whole subplot--while it was key to the narrative--dull.

6 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Feb 11, 2014 7:00 am

[4][5] Carlito's Way is great. I agree about Penn (an actor I normally do not like at all, but he was amazing as Kleinfeld the laywer.)

I think the love story didn't spoil the movie, but P.A. Miller did her best to..just not an appealing actress and a real bland performance.

American Hustle seems like a film to watch at home after a few drinks, not 'big-screen worthy'? The ladies certainly aren't lacking in charm, that's for sure.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 11, 2014 9:17 am

6) Every movie is big screen worthy.

8 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Feb 14, 2014 7:43 pm

[7] Hmm...not here in the land of $16 tickets, sadly. (How much are tix in NYC now, must be less?)

Watch American Hustle at home last night, Mrs.Jazz had a copy from her job subtitling the Golden Globes. Fun but ultimately not that memorable (except for Amy Adams, she's divine. And J Lawrence's white dress as well of course!)

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