'70s-era, Abscam, Academy Award Nominee, Academy Awards, American Hustle, Amy Adams, auteur theory, betrayal, Bradley Cooper, caper films, Christian Bale, cinema, con-men, con-women, David O. Russell, drama, Film, Film auteurs, good but not great films, haircuts, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK, Movies, period-piece, political scandals, scams, Silver Linings Playbook
I now continue my Academy Awards catch-up with American Hustle, nominated for ten awards. This will be the first of the Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen for 2013, so I really don’t have much to base it on. Thus far, however, my money is definitely on the competition.
What is the difference between a “good” and a “great” film? Is there some magic formula, some sort of recipe for truly going above and beyond? Is a movie truly “great” if it does everything right but nothing more? If that’s the case, what constitutes a “good” movie? What makes a movie “classic” and what makes it just a really enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours? To use a sports analogy, we pretty much assume that any professional-level athlete can catch, throw, run, etc, at least well enough to play their specific games: what makes the sports super-stars different?
I begin with this particular line of questioning for a very simple reason: I honestly want to know. You see, I’ve seen my fair share of films that I’ve considered unmitigated classics and a few of them (The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Blade Runner) have even been considered unmitigated classics by other, much worthier people than me. When looking at the current crop of Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars, I tried to imagine how many (if any) of these films would stand the same test of time as The Godfather II or Taxi Driver. Would any of these current films still be considered “classics” in ten years or would other films have replaced them in our minds?
David O. Russell’s American Hustle is, ostensibly, about the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s-early ’80s, although the film takes great pains to let us know that this is a largely fictional account: “Some of this actually happened.” Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with a terrible toupee, in uber-schlub mode) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams in an array of outfits that practically scream, “Hey, boobs!” from the rooftops) are a pair of con-artists who fleece their victims using a banking transfer heist (the ’70s equivalent of those “Help a Nigerian prince” emails). One of these victims just happens to be Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper with a tight, curly perm…seriously, was everyone required to pick a different, strange hairstyle out of a book?), who also happens to be an FBI agent. He decides to use Irving and Sidney’s scheme to lure in some bigger fish in the form of corrupt politicians, notably Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner with a jet-black, plastic pompadour). All of this comes to a head when mobsters enter the mix, a combination made more toxic when Irving’s nutty wife Rosalynn (Jennifer Lawrence in a ditzy tour-de-force) gets involved with one of the made-men and threatens to sink the whole enterprise. Will Irving and Sydney make it out alive? Will Richie be able to woo Sydney away from Irving? Will Rosalynn accidentally burn down the house? Will Louis CK ever finish that damn ice fishing story?
Let me make one thing clear right off the bat: there is absolutely nothing crucially wrong with David O’ Russell’s latest entry in the yearly Oscar sweepstakes. There are choices that I don’t particularly agree with (a little too much music at times, a few too many singularly goofy haircuts for one confined space, a few weird acting choices by Cooper) but, by and large, the film is extremely well-made. The cinematography is beautiful and the sound design/soundtrack is some of the best integrated sound use since the glory days of Scorcese or Tarantino: certain scenes, such as the moment where Rosalynn first meets Sydney as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road plays, are as good as similar scenes in Goodfellas. If anything, I wish that there had been slightly less music used (at one point, the soundtrack cycles through at least four different tunes in the space of a few moments) so that the truly brilliant moments could stand out more. No bones about it, though: American Hustle looks and sounds great.
How about the acting? Well, as expected from a Russell film, it’s great. The entire ensemble cast really inhabit their roles but specific attention should be paid to Cooper and Lawrence. I’ve never been a fan of Bradley Cooper: in fact, I usually find him to be completely insufferable. His portrayal of Richie, however, is pretty damn great and rather nuanced: he’s an insufferably pompous jackass with a huge ego and an even bigger inferiority complex. Cooper has a way of constantly building up and deflating his character: one moment, he’s a swinging-dick FBI agent flexing his figurative muscles at Irving and Sydney, the next moment he’s arguing with his mother over whose turn it is to clean the fish tank. Not every choice Cooper makes worked for me (there are a few freak-out moments where I caught myself saying, “Huh?”) but he fearlessly inhabits the character body and soul: I could easily see him taking the Best Supporting Actor statue and I wouldn’t complain (this time).
Lawrence, for her part, took a little longer to wrestle her way into my heart. At first, I didn’t buy her as the kooky Rosalynn: she was acting all over the place but her eyes were never engaged. At that point, I figured this would be another case of an actor obviously “acting” a part, rather than becoming the character. Somewhere along the line, however, I ended up buying her character hook, line and sinker. Perhaps it was the scene where she brazenly chats up the mobsters. Maybe it was the part where she finally meets her husband’s mistress. All I know, for sure, is that it was before the terrific scene where she belts out Wings’ “Live and Let Die” as she bops around the house. Wherever it happened, I eventually found myself really pulled in by Lawrence, an actress with a tremendous amount of talent (see Winter’s Bone if you need further proof) who will (hopefully) make the leap into more high profile roles soon (Hunger Games notwithstanding).
For the most part, everyone acquits themselves quite nicely in roles that range from glorified cameos (Robert DeNiro in his best gangster role in decades, Louis CK as Cooper’s put-upon boss at the agency) to genuine supporting turns (Renner is great as the Mayor and Michael Pena gets in some great moments as the fake Sheik/FBI agent). I’ve always felt that Russell has a particularly deft touch with actors (although Lily Tomlin might not agree…) and that’s certainly in evidence here.
So, then: what’s the conundrum? I’ve said that American Hustle looks and sounds great, is well-cast, well-acted and doesn’t have in critical issues (for me, at least). This should, by all rights, be a classic film, right? Alas, at least as far as I’m concerned, the answer is no. Quite simply, the film made me feel absolutely nothing or at least nothing more than I feel when I watch most films. I was caught up in the action, interested in the story and satisfied by the ending. At no point, however, was I truly blown away. Now, I don’t mean blown away in a flashy filmmaking sort of way: not at all. Some of my favorite films are smaller, quieter, more subtle works. I don’t need to have explosions and spinning cameras for every single scene or, to be more honest, for any scenes: it’s just not what I look for.
I did expect, however, to be blown away emotionally. I didn’t expect to be devastated or destroyed: this isn’t that kind of a movie. I also didn’t expect to slap my knee every five minutes: it isn’t that kind of a film, either. I did expect that I would feel something, some measure of Irving’s crushing loneliness, some measure of what it meant to be Rosalynn, some iota of Richie’s ridiculous obsession with being a success…anything. As it was, I never found myself bored or looked at my watch but I never found any higher significance for anything I saw, either. To me, this was an extremely well-made, entertaining caper film but nothing more. There didn’t seem to be any bigger social ramifications, message, what have you: what was there was up on-screen.
Not every film, of course, has to aspire to delusions of grandeur: if everything changed the world, we’d be in a constant state of flux. There has to be room for “pretty good,” “good” and “very good” films, otherwise we’d have no concept of “excellent” and “amazing” films. My main issue (or confusion, to be more accurate) comes with whatever I appear to be missing regarding American Hustle: what am I not getting from the film? When I watched it, more than anything, I was reminded of another film, one that moved me completely and has never really left my mind: Goodfellas.
From where I sit, American Hustle appears to be David O. Russell’s attempt to make his own Goodfellas. There are quite a few parallels: the extensive use of music; the large ensemble cast; the glorification (to a point: neither film lets their bad guys get off totally scot-free); the heavily stylized moments (Russell has more shots where Cooper, Bale and Adams stride side-by-side, in slo-mo, while a cool song plays than are probably necessary for even a Robert Rodriguez film); the voiceover (as my esteemed friend Salim has pointed out, Bale even seems to be channeling Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill at various points). When put together, at least as put together in this particular film, these individual pieces definitely form a picture that reminds me (more than a little) of Scorcese’s seminal film.
I’m not sure what it is about Goodfellas that moves me so much but it still affects me in the same way today that it did back in the ’90s. Despite my overall enjoyment of American Hustle and my general goodwill towards Russell (I loved Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter, disliked Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster and have yet to see Silver Linings Playbook), I find it impossible to believe that American Hustle will have any impact on me whatsoever in one year, much less 24 years. American Hustle is a fun, well-made, extremely enjoyable film, which is really more than we can (usually) ask for. Is it an amazing film or a neo-classic? Absolutely not. Is it the best film of 2013, at least as far as the Academy is concerned? I’m hoping they all got to see at least one truly amazing film this year: I’m pretty sure American Hustle wasn’t it.