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Oscars 2014: Is 'Hustle' a contender or con job?

Posted 8:21am on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014

American Hustle is the most polarizing Best Picture nominee in years, with some critics hailing it as a modern masterpiece and others dismissing it as gaudily dressed emptiness. As the 2014 ceremony approaches Sunday, two of our critics clash over the film in an epic email battle trying to answer the question: Is Oscar getting hustled?

Dear Preston:

For as long as I’ve been paying attention to the Oscars, the Best Picture race has inspired passionate opinions and furious debates — I remember, even as a 9-year-old boy, being utterly aghast when a friend of my parents’ said they liked Gandhi better than E.T. (Three decades later, I’m still appalled.) Like a lot of people, I even see my choices as reflections of the man I proclaim to be — i.e., the sort of edgy, coolly intellectual person who roots for Pulp Fiction over Forrest Gump, Gosford Park over A Beautiful Mind, and absolutely anything over The King’s Speech.

Yeah, these distinctions are probably ultimately meaningless and silly (I’m also the not-so-hip guy who wept through The Remains of the Day and thinks it should have swept the Oscars that year). But they are also what makes the Oscars so much fun. We’re not just arguing movies here. We’re arguing our very souls — that our way of looking upon the world is the right way, and everyone else needs their head examined.

The funny thing about this year’s Oscar race, though: The one movie I assumed everyone would agree on has proven to be the most divisive: American Hustle.

I should emphasize that I went into American Hustle with low expectations. I wasn’t a fan of either of David O. Russell’s previous two Oscar-nominated pictures, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. The director’s over-the-top, caffeinated style — the camera whooshing around, the characters all screaming at one another — only seemed to heighten the artificiality of those stories.

But from that magnificent opening scene, with Christian Bale trying to effect the world’s most perfect comb-over, I thought Russell just nailed it. In American Hustle, he’s telling a story that’s all about the American obsession with artifice — how we are all, in effect, putting on a performance and “hustling” our way through life — and thus the over-the-top style makes perfect sense.

Indeed, this movie does so much so well that I assumed it would be a slam-dunk for the Best Picture Oscar. I love the way, for instance, it plays out on both a macro level (a story of a large, convoluted scam involving the Mafia and assorted corrupt politicians) and on a micro level (a story of four people scamming each other in love). And I love those deliciously loopy performances, one more unexpected than the next.

I’m not sure that Jennifer Lawrence is especially “believable” as a needy Queens housewife, but every time she turns up she sends a jolt of electricity through the proceedings, and the moment where she demands that Jeremy Renner sniff her fingernails might be my single favorite of 2013. The actors are on Russell’s wavelength, too, playing with notions of fakery and truth, and sailing far over the top in a way that’s perfect for the material.

I won’t say this was my favorite of the Best Picture nominees — that would be Captain Phillips, a haunting dirge for our winner-take-all global economy disguised as a white-knuckle thriller — but American Hustle is definitely a close second. And I assumed it would be the movie everyone could rally around, especially if (like me) you found the story of Gravity a little thin, and the depictions of torture in 12 Years a Slave a little too unrelenting.

But I have a feeling you think otherwise …

Chris

Dear Chris:

It’s been a little more than two months since I first saw American Hustle and I still recall the visceral dislike I felt as soon as the lights came up.

This was one of the year’s best films? Talk about a con job.

Unlike you, I really enjoyed The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and felt that they were deeply human, intensely focused works intent on digging into the flaws of their respective characters. In fact, I’ll go further: American Hustle is the first (and so far, only) David O. Russell movie I’ve outright hated. That over-the-top style works when there’s a solid foundation ( Playbook felt almost like a documentary in spots), but that is not the case here.

American Hustle grates, because its thinly drawn characters lurch from moment to moment, making vivid impressions in episodes that add up to nothing. It makes for a dynamite trailer, loaded with sex appeal, rock ’n’ roll and retro clothes, but a grindingly dull film. Call it a bait-and-switch that Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale’s character) would admire.

Admittedly, a lot of my disgust comes from how the film is being held up as a masterpiece. (Are we moviegoers that hard-up for quality?) American Hustle, based on a convoluted true-crime episode from the ’70s, tosses the viewer into the deep end and dares them to swim. Now, I’m not asking to be held by the hand, but some context would be helpful, particularly toward the conclusion, when it’s apparent Russell really wants the viewer to be torn apart by the consequences of Irving’s Machiavellian machinations. (I keep coming back to this factoid, however apocryphal, I found on IMDb: “According to Christian Bale, much of the movie was improvised. So, during the shooting of the film, he noted to David O. Russell, ‘You realize that this is going to change the plot greatly down track?’ To which the director replied, ‘Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters. That’s it.’ ”)

Watching Bradley Cooper grit his teeth and sob in anger made me shrug — I wasn’t connected with the character in any way, which robs the story of whatever power it was meant to have. For me, the macro and micro you cite are both totally hollow — there is no “there” there. A director can’t forsake plot for character when the story contains so many moving parts.

A lot of critics considered American Hustle a riff of sorts on Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, but that comparison is false. There was a clear narrative engine powering GoodFellas’ individual sequences. Story served character, not the other way around. I firmly believe American Hustle would be far more powerful if Russell had paid as much attention to the how and why as he did the who.

Speaking of Scorsese, if you want a film about hungry hustlers corrupting the American Dream to get ahead, I’ll refer you to my favorite of last year: The Wolf of Wall Street.

Preston

Dear Preston:

I don’t want to carry this debate too far afield and start arguing about another movie, but since you brought it up — and since there’s been a sort of American Hustle vs. Wolf of Wall Street argument carrying on in the blogosphere — let me say this: Part of what frustrated me about Wolf of Wall Street was its poker-faced neutrality toward its characters and their actions; I was never sure how I was supposed to react to what I was watching.

American Hustle, on the other hand, has this glorious surfeit of empathy: Russell loves every one of these characters (and the actors playing them), and seems genuinely engaged in the question of why they do what they do. I can see where your complaints are coming from — at certain times, it does feels as if the characters are taking over the story, and sending it off the rails. But to me that’s just an illustration of the movie’s complexity, and its ability to explore lives that contain contradictions.

Consider the handling of the Bradley Cooper character, the FBI agent whose zealous ambition kicks the plot into gear. In a different version of this movie, he would probably be portrayed as a stock villain — “The Man” who crushes everyone in his path. Here, though, he’s alternately the bad guy, then the romantic leading man, then the dupe for whom we actually feel pity — and the film throttles forward at such a rapid clip that we don’t immediately register the complexity of the character. So, yeah, maybe Russell’s approach to making this movie was “indulgent,” but the end result still strikes me as emotionally and dramatically coherent.

Dear Chris:

Except Wolf doesn’t try to make you fall in love with its misbehaving protagonists and then effectively shame them by movie’s end, as Hustle does. But we digress.

For me, that lack of empathy is Hustle’s Achilles’ heel: Russell is so in love with the actors (and, by extension, their characters) that he can’t see the forest for the trees. The moment where Jennifer Lawrence dances around the house, singing Live and Let Die? Kitschy fun, but what in the blue blazes is the point? It’s already well established by that point that her character is off-balance. It felt gratuitous and totally self-serving.

Dear Preston:

C’mon, man. You can’t complain about this movie’s self-indulgence, and then turn around and embrace Wolf of Wall Street — especially if you’re talking about coherent plotting. Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long, and yet by the end I still had no clue how Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) made his fortune, or why and how what he did was illegal.

Dear Chris:

There was one sequence in American Hustle that I found intriguing: It’s when the main characters are converging on the casino for a meeting with Mafia bigwigs (including Robert De Niro). In that moment, I saw what Russell was trying to accomplish. Everyone involved is working more than one angle, and there’s a clear sense of what the stakes are during those few minutes of the film. Not to mention, the smoke-suffused, slow-motion tracking shot scored to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road — a masterful bit of synchronicity.

But the pure buzz that sequence gave off quickly dissipated — again, the Lawrence/Amy Adams face-off in the bathroom felt like someone just left the camera running — and ultimately frustrated me. If American Hustle had operated at that pitch for its entire running time, I’d be joining the chorus of huzzahs. As it is, I don’t think any of the performances, none of which seem particularly consistent to me, really saved the film or did anything to illuminate whatever Russell’s larger points may have been.

Dear Preston:

Seriously, you don’t think what Amy Adams does in the movie is consistent? Dexterously slipping into and out of a British accent, rocking those plunging necklines, and displaying a steely confidence that I’ve never seen from her before, she brilliantly encapsulates the film’s central idea: about how in America, you have to fake it until you make it.

(And while I swore I was going to stop picking on Wolf of Wall Street … seriously, Jonah Hill? That extended Saturday Night Live routine is worthy of a nod, but American Hustle’s brilliant fifth wheel Jeremy Renner gets left off the list? Scandalous!)

Dear Chris:

I’ll admit Amy Adams was the only actor holding my attention (although I did feel more pity for Jeremy Renner’s bamboozled mayor by the end). I just don’t know if what she was doing was Oscar-worthy. As for Jonah Hill, I remain baffled by the fact that he’s a twice-nominated Oscar contender. There’s nothing he does in the course of Wolf of Wall Street that stands out, in my mind, as being particularly impressive. Is it just the fact that he’s known for comedy so moving into dramatic roles is laudable? He’s no match for DiCaprio — which may be the entire point — but I’m happy to concede that Hill, apart from the need for a tighter run time, is Wolf’s biggest liability.

Dear Preston:

Well, listen, I think we’re ultimately crashing into a brick wall of taste. As evidenced by your enthusiasm for Wolf of Wall Street, it’s clear that neither one of us has a problem with a cinema of excess, and directors sometimes overplaying their hands for the sake of the larger vision. (And just as you cite the brilliant, exhilarating casino sequence as a high point for you in American Hustle, I would point to the justly praised quaalude sequence in Wolf of Wall Street, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character sloooooooowly stumbles his way out of a country club, down its steps and into his sports car.)

And if the Oscar prognosticators are to be trusted, and the Best Picture prize goes to either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, it looks like we’re both going to be disappointed on Sunday night. So I’ll ask you these questions: If your beloved Wolf of Wall Street can’t win Best Picture, which alternate prize would you most like to see it win? And, other than Best Picture, what American Hustle victory would send your heart sinking the lowest?

To answer the reverse questions myself: I’d love to see David Russell’s script take the screenplay prize — it’s not a neat or elegantly structured screenplay by any means, but it’s nonetheless a brilliant example of taking the thread of real life and spinning it into fabulous fiction. And, seriously, if Jonah Hill wins an Oscar, I cry Uncle.

Dear Chris:

Hey, I don’t think you have to worry about shedding any tears over Jonah Hill come Oscar night.

I’d dearly love to see DiCaprio walk away with an award for Wolf — it’s a tremendous, career-defining piece of work in an outsize role and he doesn’t misstep once — but I’m afraid Matthew McConaughey is going to grab the golden statuette instead.

And speaking of acting awards, I fear Jennifer Lawrence will win for her work in Hustle, however off-kilter I may think it is. And if she does, she’ll be robbing a more deserving actress in Lupita Nyong’o, whose feature debut in 12 Years a Slave was absolutely stunning, far more gripping than anything going on in Hustle.

But, I suppose, that would confirm your theory about American Hustle — “Fake it until you make it.”

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