American Hustle — Christian Movie Review!
The ’70s seem to be in style these days. I don’t know if we have the hipsters to blame for that with their late ’70s mustaches and too-cool-to-care throw-back culture; but, honestly, you don’t have to ask Hollywood twice to make a nuanced, retro-chic hipster movie about conflicted, complicated self-tormented characters roving around in ’70s threads and orange-tinted sunglasses — which is American Hustle in a nutshell. In fact, the Academy Awards were invented for this very purpose: to give trophies and throw parties for retro-chic art house filmmakers that wear orange-tinted sunglasses modeled after the ones that Carlton Fisk probably wore after winning Game 6
of the 1975 World Series.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, here’s the general plot for the movie before we jump into the parental guidance issues (followed by my review of the film itself): Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man who joins forces with the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but when a con job goes south, the pair have no choice but to work for a slightly-off-his-rocker FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Before they know it, they find themselves in way over their heads as DiMaso pushes them into a web of ruthless mafia elites and corrupt government officials. All the while, Irving is trying to deal with his marriage to Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) as it falls apart and threatens to throw a wrench into his dealings with the FBI.
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content: One sex scene with no nudity but brief views of as much skin as the director could show without explicit nudity. A stripper is shown dancing in a club, and the audience sees buttocks and breasts. Characters touch each other very suggestively while fully clothed in more than one scene, and they use foul language to express their intentions, though one such scene turns violent as the woman hits the man’s head with a painting frame to get away from him. A woman forcibly kisses another woman to spite and taunt her in a twisted way. Women wear revealing clothing throughout the film.
Violence/Gore: It’s a film that features the mafia playing a key role in the plot, so we see a character get shot in the neck and a character get kidnapped and beaten. Another character pummels his boss out of rage, and we see him slamming a phone violently into his head. He has bloody wounds and bruises on his head afterwards. A woman slams a painting frame into a man’s head. Another man is beaten and kicked by a man and has a bloody nose afterwards.
Language: This is an exaggeration (maybe), but I’d say almost every other word that comes out of a character’s mouth is an f-word. There are scores of other swear words of every kind as well. This kind of language is almost a given when Hollywood is making a movie about gritty yet cool/colorful scam artists who reflect the grimy world in which they habit. The culture apparently compels them all to swear — both men and women — like sailors. I wonder: do real life scam artists who lurk in illegal underworlds of society also swear with the over-eagerness of a teenager trying very hard to be cool around his rebellious friends? And if they do, is it because that’s how they have always talked or because they’re always portrayed that way in movies, so they figured they might as well try to be like their cinematic counterparts? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? The foul-mouthed con man or the actor who plays a foul-mouthed con man? We may never know. There are 22 misuses of God’s name, including when people use Jesus’ name as a swear word. A scene, which was written to be comedic, portrays a young boy probably eight copying his mother and calling his father a “sick son of a b-.” Although some of the audience laughed, it angered me that they gave that line to a young child actor. I really can’t stand it when filmmakers craft scenes so that little kids have to swear in order to play their role.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Characters frequently drink and smoke throughout the film, and there is drug use depicted (one scene of a man snorting something).
Frightening/Intense Content: The movie revolves partly around the story of a broken marriage, and caught in the middle of that seriously twisted and messed up relationship is an innocent little boy. In one scene, the parents fight very loudly and the kid is caught in the middle. It’s intense and disturbing from the child’s point of view, and we see that clearly. The movie also has one scene with a couple at a disco, and they go into a bathroom stall. Though they do not have sex (though there is foul dialogue and heavy petting), the female character — perhaps high on drugs (though we don’t know for sure) — howls almost psychotically or as if she were possessed after the man leaves. It adds a slightly creepy feel to the scene.
(Review continues below)
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
Admittedly, I was poking fun at the 70s vibe and some of the Hollywood pretentiousness that accompanies their grand pat-ourselves-on-the-back ritual known as the Oscars. But from the point of view of film craft, American Hustle is about as good as movies can get — in terms of pacing, storytelling, character depth, acting skill, and tension management (i.e. knowing when/how to ratchet up the tension at the right times so that the audience stays engaged). In addition, the film really does have a ton of style. They capture the 70s with great richness and vivid, memorable detail. You really feel like you’ve taken a time machine back a few decades. There also a significant amount of comedy in this movie. It knows when to lighten the mood, and it uses that element to make the characters likable.
The real strong point of this film — besides its intricately nuanced 1970s Jersey setting that was built with painstaking detail — is its acting. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are especially good in this film, and Jeremy Renner is so likeable that it breaks your heart, considering how his character has to get his hands dirty in the underworld of society. Jennifer Lawrence’s character is outrageously annoying, infuriating, comical, and pitiable all at the same time. Lawrence brought all of these layers to the screen with skill. Bradley Cooper is just plain goofy — in a likeable way — though he makes his character just irritating enough to make the audience root against him at times.
The movie is also a very good twist-and-turn, edge-of-your-seat flick, almost like a heist movie or a prison escape movie, where the plot builds towards a final showdown that will require every ounce of wits from the protagonist if he is to survive and make it out. The movie is good at hiding its cards so that you’re not really sure what’s coming next.
There is a line in the movie where Irving (Christian Bale) describes life as “extremely gray” — and that is a good way to summarize the movie. The story avoids neatly stacking the characters one side or the other. There is no clear “here are the good guys; here are the bad guys.” Everyone in this film (well, maybe not everyone) is seen at one point with both a virtue that makes them likeable and a fatal flaw that makes them infuriating. In this way, the film imitates real life: we are all flawed creatures. Anyone who has read the book of Romans and agrees with it would find this verse “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” an apt summary of this movie. In the beginning of the film, Irving has a superb narration in which he declares that “everyone is a con artist” and that sometimes “we even con ourselves to get through life.” And this really captures the theme of the film: every human heart has the potential for great deception, and, more often than not, we target ourselves for the biggest con jobs. This movie agrees with the prophet Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things…who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) While this movie is clearly not intended for the “faith-based family-friendly” market, it does portray some basic Biblical truths.
Also, despite Irving’s flaws as a person, we see in Christian Bale’s performance a man who has a very real love for his son. He knows he’s messed a lot of things up, and we see the regret and pain in his heart, and though the film is indeed “extremely gray” in its general moral outlook, Irving ultimately begins to make life decisions that serve the well-being of his son instead of himself.
Perhaps because of the drifting, diffuse relativism that floats over Hollywood, the movie never offers any ultimate solution to the eternal problem of our deceptive human nature. It never lifts its eyes beyond human reasoning and our own moral justifications to come to the logical conclusion that, if our hearts are all wickedly deceptive to the point where we’re even “conning ourselves,” we need Someone higher to step in who is able to fix our hearts.
Instead we see an array of struggling characters awash in the deception and vanity of their own hearts, and there isn’t really any hope in their eyes that their hearts can be transformed into something vastly different or better. There’s a sort of a somber fatalism that haunts the movie, and it’s kind of a downer, in that sense. These characters are likeable, believable, deeply flawed but made in the image of God and thus still have value and moments of virtue, but they are quite literally hopeless. They have no hope that their self-centered nature and compulsions that enslave their hearts could ever be permanently solved. There is no revelation that they could someday be forever set free and made whole. They don’t even consider it an option — at least not in the sense of being completely transformed and cleansed from all of their sins and regret. The best that they can hope for is that they make it out alive. In the wake of their efforts to survive, however, they leave a long string of broken relationships with a child caught in the middle of loud, traumatizing dysfunction. The movie, however, is powerful, and it is being recognized with so many awards and nominations — not only because of its impeccable style and skillful storytelling — but because it depicts this plight of hopelessness in a way that really hits you in the heart. You feel deeply for the characters. You want them to survive. You want them to find a new life and have their slates wiped clean. You want them to find redemption. And because the film is so good at portraying these people, it’s hard to watch them struggle with so much brokenness and hopelessness.
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