SAVING MR. BANKS and AMERICAN HUSTLE

I never thought I’d write about these two movies together, but I have the exact same criticism of both of them: the first hour drags, but things pick up (more for one than the other) after that.

Saving Mr. Banks is as one dimensional as, well, most Disney movies without much magic. I enjoy watching Emma Thompson work, but she doesn’t have a great deal to work with here since the storyline told in flashback sequences holds the emotional center of the film and her character is so prickly and unlikeable.

Maybe I’d feel differently if I had a stronger connection to Mary Poppins, but I haven’t seen it in decades.

The plot is straightforward, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wants to convince P.L. Travers (Thompson) to let him make a movie of her book series, and the author needs the money but is reluctant because she doesn’t hold Disney’s work in high regard.

Of course, whether or not she’ll relent is a foregone conclusion, so the film considers why she wrote the story as she did and what it means to her by digging into her difficult childhood.

The supporting cast is good (in addition to the leads), the period details are fun, but the film is too long and the emotional payoff a bit lackluster.

I expected more from American Hustle. After all, I admire David O. Russell’s work, especially The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and Three Kings.

American Hustle is very loosely based on the Abscam sting that sent congressmen, a US senator, and some New Jersey officials to jail on corruption charges. You’ll recognize a lot of actors from recent Russell films – Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams – but who the actual politicians are, who the FBI agents are, and even who the con artist at the center of the operation is has been embellished or completely re-characterized to serve Russell’s storytelling goals.

I have no gripe with that, but the first hour of film, leading up to the launch of the big sting operation, seems slow while the second hour picks up considerably. For me, this film is more fragmented thematically than my three favorites among Russell’s films that are mentioned above.

I don’t mind fragmented storytelling – and even relish different types of narrative structures when the structure serves the film – but there must be a larger coherence that is apparent throughout or revealed by the end of the film for this choice to make sense.

There are a lot of interesting pieces at play in the construction of American Hustle, but the elements don’t seem to be in an optimal final placement.

Both films are worth seeing. Neither film will make my top ten list.

American Hustle

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