Film review: American Hustle (2013)

Like Philomena that I reviewed yesterday, this film was also up for multiple Academy Awards this year, though it too did not win any. It was nominated in 10 categories, including the grand slam of the seven major ones (film, director, actress, actor, supporting actress, supporting actor, screenplay).

Again like Philomena, it is based on a true story though far more loosely connected with the actual events. This was an elaborate sting operation known as Abscam that took place in 1980 which FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs and their agents bribed US Congressmen in return for favors. You can read the original story and how it differs from the film here.

The trouble with the film its that although it was easy viewing, it suffered from the disease of over-indulgence by the director. Some film makers seem to think that more is always better and add things that make the film lose focus. At 138 minutes, it was just too long. I started getting bored around the 30 minute mark as the setting up dragged on and on, though it got better in the second half. Cutting 30 minutes from it would have made the film a whole lot better.

My strong bias is that a film should last for 90 minutes or so, especially for comedies like this one, or maybe 100 minutes if the story is a little complicated. For example, Philomena clocked in in at 98 minutes, which was just right. Anything over two hours should be reserved for bona fide epics in which there is a sprawling story with multiple threads, and such films should be entrusted only in the hands of directors like David Lean who know how to keep the audience engaged for that long.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. resident_alien says

    I’m sorry, I would probably have an intelligent(ish) opinion if I weren’t so…impressed… with Jeremy Renner’s hair in this film.
    Seriously, I can’t get over it. It is truly frightening. The hair! Make it stop! Do it to Julia!

  2. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    I haven’t seen this or Philomena yet, but I’m totally with you on length. There used to be a rough consensus that comedies should be about an hour and a half, dramas closer to two hours, and action flicks you can maybe draw out to 2:15 or so since explosions and face kicking tend to hold people’s attention, but nowadays it’s a relief just to see that a flick is less than two and a half (I blame James Cameron).

    I used to watch a lot of DVD special features (for you youngsters, “DVDs” were little silver discs that had a movie on them) and one thing I often found very educational was watching deleted scenes with commentary. It’s a fascinating opportunity not just to see what they took out, but hear the reason why. Occasionally it’s a straightforward case of a scene just not being very good, or perhaps they decided to go a different direction plot-wise, but most of the time it comes down to “we shot it, we liked it, but in the end we didn’t need it.” It doesn’t even need to be a problem of overall I’ve heard the editing process described as “killing your own children,” and I can certainly sympathize with not wanting to throw away something that you and so many others put so much work into when on it’s own it’s everything you hoped it would be, but ultimately you are trying to tell a story to people in one sitting, and if they’re thinking more about what they’re having for dinner, or that shapely ass that was in front of them in the concessions line, or how much they just paid for 4000 kcal of corn, palm oil, and sugar water because the plot hasn’t budged in 20 minutes then that is a problem.

  3. Mobius says

    I have to agree that the “more is better” meme is often false.

    “Aliens” is one of my favorite sci-fi movies. It is very intense, and the director was masterful in his use of tension and release. When the movie was first shown on network TV, they showed an extended edition that added some scenes not in the theater release. A friend of mine thought this was wonderful since “more is better”. I disagreed very much. While technically interesting, the added scenes played havoc with the timing of the movie, interrupting that flow of tension and release that added so much to the intensity of the movie.

    One sci-fi movie that I did find the extended version so much better, however, was “The Abyss”. In the theater version, quite a bit was cut out at the end so the movie would fit a certain time slot. But the parts deleted made the end somewhat incoherent. The director’s cut extended version put those parts back in and the added information made the end far more understandable and much, much better (IMHO).

    So more is sometimes better, and being able to strike that balance is what great directors do.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    David Cameron never makes me scream for an editor as much as Peter Jackson does. The Lord of the Rings movies had a bunch of scenes that needed to be cut — anything that took place underground, for instance. But none of those were as bad as King Kong, where it seemed as if every single scene happened twice. On the island, let’s fight giant insects! And now fight different giant insects! Now dinosaurs! Now other dinosaus! Kong stands on a platform on the skyscrapers and fights airplanes! Now he climbs to a higher platform and fights more airplanes! End it please!

  5. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    To clarify, I don’t blame Cameron because he’s the worst offender, but because the financial success of Titanic seems to have been a key factor in the loosening up of runtime restrictions. I doubt that Fellowship of the Ring would have been released at 178 minutes if Titanic hadn’t set records at 205. Personally I really enjoyed watching the Lord of the Rings films in the theatres, even if they were too long, but King Kong was just miserable. And I think The Hobbit could have been an excellent 3 hour film, just not three of them.

    If I were giving an award for “most overlong movie of the last year or so” though it has to be Wolf of Wall Street. There was a pretty good 90 minute black comedy in there, but it was buried under another 90 minutes of boobs and Quaalude slapstick.

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