2014 Reel Theology: American Hustle (Movie #2)

My reactions to American Hustle, with an attempt not to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

The pre-movie expectations

I have heard this is a heist movie and I love heist movies.  They are usually great venues for the Fellowshp Theme and the Justice Theme.  They are also in many ways only slightly more plausible Super Hero movies with everyone have particular super powers.  Super Hacker, Super fighter, Super Thief…

I have also heard that there is no truly likable character in the movie and I am not usually fond of movies described that way.  I like someone to root for.  I don’t need them to be perfect, even prefer if they aren’t, but I need to see enough  to care about in the the characters to be emotionally pulled into the story.

So I suppose my pre movie expectations are mixed.  Will I like it?  Will I not?  I actually like going with no expectations, and mixed expectations which are kind of a wash is just about as good.  I did post on Facebook soliciting other’s impressions, but I did so at the last minute before entering the movie and so I saw no one’s answer until I emerged from the dark theater.  Interestingly the responses I got would have only furthered them mixed nature of my expectations as the answers ranged from boring to meh, to one of the best of the year.

The Set Up

As I sit down, I find I am not alone.  The theater is far from packed, but, probably because it was a holiday and a matinee, there were a range of other attenders today.  I’m feeling slightly guilty (as I sometimes irrationally do) about seeing a movie by myself in the middle of the day and I really want this to be good.  I don’t want to feel cheated by the experience.

The first thing on the screen makes me chuckle.  Some of this actually happened.  Philomena began with Inspired by true events,  and I am definitely amused by this more honest take on the movie.  My expectations immediately shift in two directions:  First I had forgotten this was based (however loosely) on the Abscam scandal, but now I remember.  Second, I had not expected this to be humorous, but as heist movies tend to be either really dark or mostly humorous, I was pleased at this initial indication it falls into the humorous category.  I am sort of surprised that no one else in the theater seems to chuckle at all.  Am I the only one who found this humorous?

The team

Christian Bale, man of a thousand faces.  I am amazed with how Christian Bale manages to look so different from role to role.  I am not the most visually acute dude, but still when you think of the Mechanic, Batman and American Hustle, you will see what I mean.

Amy Adams is turning out to be one of my favorite actors.  I know Jennifer Lawrence is all the rave, and also gave a great performance in this movie, but to me Amy Adams, like Christian Bale, transforms herself in each role.

Bradley Cooper is also turning out to be a favorite of mine.

So we’ve got a good team.  The acting is more than solid.  I expect that of an Oscar nominate movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s always true.  Anyway, we’ve pulled together the “perfect team” to pull of this heist.

The Mark

When I watch Heist movies, I expect to be the mark in some fashion. Ultimately I am the one being fooled into thinking one thing is happening when it’s actually another.  It’s the twistiness that makes it fun.  I know some people hate it, butI enjoy being fooled, particularly when the fooling is artistically done and in ways I feel like I could have figured out when it was all over.

The Con

If I was the mark and the con was the movie, then this con mostly failed for three reasons.

I was never fooled.  The moments which were, I think, supposed to be twists all came completely expectedly.  So much so, that I kept waiting for a final twist to undo it all, but such a thing never came.  Maybe it was not supposed to be twisty, but then it was just less interesting.  There was not enough character development, redemption, or action to make it interesting for other reasons, so if it wasn’t a heist movie than it just wasn’t much of anything.

What I had heard about the characters was true.  No one was likeable.  Our two main characters open the movie preying upon desperate people, stealing money from them.  I won’t spoil the movie, but I’ll say that although I hoped and looked for redemption, it never came.  There was no one to root for.  This means that ultimately I just didn’t care very much who came out on top, who tricked who and who “won.”  I suppose given all the options the “winners” could have been even less likable, but as I say, ultimately I didn’t care.

3) Justice is usually a huge theme in Heist movies.  I know this sounds odd given the content is also usually about criminals as heroes, but it is precisely the search for justice that adds redemption to the criminals.  Ironically in this movie the very aspects of the real ABSCAM that were justice, are downplayed, underplayed or outright denied in this movie.  That may or may not be the real story, but it’s not a very satisfying movie (and from what I’ve learned it was a long way from the real story.)

I didn’t hate the movie, not even close.  I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.   I like a good Leverage episode (Hulu Plus starring Timothy Hutton, check it out) better when it comes to Heist stories.

My Seven Themes thoughts so far.

Fellowship is definitely a theme in the movie, as expected.

Redemption and Justice are conspicuous by their absence, which if intentional means they are important themes for not being there.

Alternate worlds is a definite.

Christ figure is relevant.

Resurrection is not in this movie (another theme often in Heist movies)

No substitutionary love.

So most of the seven themes are present, but most Heist movies have all seven themes as part of their formula.


Current Ranking in my mind.

The only other one I’ve reviewed so far is Philomena, which maintains it’s number one slot although not by a lot.  Mostly only because I like the characters better and was therefore more drawn into the story.  Although in general I’d say that I’ve been disappointed.  Neither movie seemed to me to offer anything for Best movie status.  Best actors, definitely; best movie I’m not seeing.

I rate movies according to how much of my money and time they are worth.  My rating for this movie is bolded below.

Worth a full price movie ticket

Worth a matinee viewing.

Worth a dollar movie viewing.

Worth a DVD/itunes rental

Watch it on Netflix

Watch it on TV on a Saturday Afternoon when you’v nothing else to do and you’r sonly laying around anyway.

Not worth your time

Influencing factors in my reactions

I will confess that my reaction is definitely influence by the people with whom I watch a movie.  Although I watched this movie alone,there were others in the theater, but I repeatedly found myself laughing alone.  The whole movie makes more sense if it’s somewhat comedic, but the people in the theater seemed to think it was only a heavy drama.  There were some very serious themes, but some of the comedic moments not only made it a better movie, but also would have changed my overall impression as not trying to be so serious.  As it is, I’m not entirely sure if it was the movie itself which couldn’t decide how seriously to take itself, or that the people win the theater seemed afraid to laugh, but either way it influenced my overall perception.

This is just my reaction.  What was yours?


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