February 13, 2014

The Biggest Scam In AMERICAN HUSTLE Is The Idea That It's A Great Movie

"It's perfume, but there's also something rotten."
There comes a day in the life of every film fan when you realize that all awards shows are complete bullshit.

In my younger days I used to get all excited about the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes and the Oscars because I was laboring under the delusion that the quantity of trophies won somehow corresponded to a film's quality or value within the industry.  My mistake was confusing film awards shows for an honest and objective competition based upon skill and merit as opposed to what they really are, a socio-political popularity contest.  I think for me, the curtain was really pulled back in 2000, when Julia Roberts won the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich over Ellen Burstyn's astounding performance in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream.  Quite frankly, I'm still astounded that anyone would even put the two performances on the same level, let alone hold Roberts' paint-by-numbers portrayal as superior to one of the single greatest female performances I've ever seen in a film.  (Julie Christie's work in Away From Her just might edge out Burstyn.)  In that instance it was clear that the Academy members were simply voting for Roberts because they all really liked her and it was a reasonable excuse to give her an Oscar because she didn't have one yet.  They were voting for the performer, not the performance.  The same thing happened the following year when Denzel Washington won a Best Actor performance for Training Day, mostly I suspect because the Academy forgot to give him one for Malcolm X.  (At this rate, it seems likely that DiCaprio will suffer a similar fate, getting snubbed for truly deserving work like The Wolf Of Wall Street only to win for some far less impressive movie years from now once guilt finally gets the better of Academy voters.)

These days I care very little about awards.  In fact, the only show that I still watch regularly is the Oscars, mostly because I think the results at the end of the night still have a fairly significant impact on the kind of movies that studios choose to greenlight in the immediate aftermath.  There's still a historical significance to the Academy Awards that simply isn't present in something as insular as the SAG Awards or as downright silly as the Golden Globes.  But even that significance is incredibly relative, and just because a movie ends up winning Best Picture, that doesn't necessarily guarantee it a place of standing and influence within the larger popular culture.  There are more than a few movies that lost out on the big night and yet continue to reverberate throughout the collective unconscious years after they left the big screen, while plenty of Best Pictures have withered down to mere historical footnotes; we're all familiar with Citizen Kane while next to nobody remembers How Green Was My Valley.  If you want a more modern example, Jesse Eisenberg will forever be remembered for his indelible portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, a film whose lead actors have gone on to play such iconic roles as Spider-Man, The Lone Ranger and soon Lex Luthor.  Meanwhile, when's the last time you heard someone talk about The King's Speech?

In fact, I'm gonna call it right now: American Hustle is the new King's Speech/The Artist. (Be honest, you forgot that movie ever happened until right now.)  Hustle a film designed to win awards and then be promptly dismissed by the public at large.  It's got David O. Russell behind the camera, a talented director who's improbably morphed into a prestige artist despite a multi-year absence after the huge pile of weird that is I Heart Huckabees (probably my favorite Russell film) and the epic crash and burn of Nailed.  (Poor, poor Jessica Biel.)  The cast is chock full of fabulous A-List movie stars clad in a wide range of flamboyant period clothing and silly hairstyles.  The story is part con-man deception, part corrupt government sting operation, part sexy love quadrangle.  This movie's got everything going for it...

...and yet, I just don't care.

There are plenty of legitimate problems with the film, from the muddled structure to Jennifer Lawrence's muddled Long Island accent, but what's most frustrating is that it seems to operate on an almost cynical level of apathy.  No one seems to care about the actual story being told so much as they do the artifice and hollow style choices through which it is told.  Case in point: Christian Bale and Amy Adams are introduced as con artists who are incredibly successful and good at what they do, and yet their actual scams are presented as downright pedestrian, when they're being presented at all.  You'd wonder why the FBI would choose to depend on these two small-timers to bring down multiple U.S. Congressmen, but you don't wonder for very long because after about 45 minutes the movie gets bored with the con artist thing and almost completely drops the entire storyline.  When the movie suddenly tries to dive back into it in the last 20 minutes, not only do I no longer care but the big "surprise reveal" is executed with such neolithic incompetence that I don't even know why they bothered.  The final nail in the coffin for me came about 2/3 of the way through the film when a surprise big name cameo suddenly arrives in a key scene.  It's only a brief appearance, but considering the actor in question and the role they're portraying, that should have been a stand-up-and-cheer moment, a real highlight of the movie.  In a more engaging film, that would have been the point where my excitement and enjoyment shot through the roof.  In American Hustle, it felt like nothing more than an empty gesture, a calculated maneuver that capitalized on an actor essentially owing the director a favor.

The whole movie just sort lays flat on the screen, content to merely exist without pushing any kind of boundaries or doing anything remotely interesting.  Everyone, save Louis C.K, (inarguably the best part of the movie) is operating on complete cruise control, letting the Zeppelin soundtrack and feathered hair do all the work while they sit back and wait for the awards to come pouring in.  Which leads me to my biggest problem with American Hustle: it's simply not an awards caliber film in the absolute powerhouse that was 2013.  In a weaker year it would snag a bunch of nominations to pad out various categories and probably come away with a few isolated wins and you wouldn't care.  Years later you'd simply remember it as "that movie where Christian Bale got really fat and Jennifer Lawrence won another kinda bullshit Oscar."  But there's just no way to argue that Hustle belongs in the same conversation with Her, Wolf Of Wall Street, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips or even movies that weren't nominated like Inside Llewyn Davis, Stoker, Short Term 12 or Fruitvale Station.  Those are all movies that have a profound effect on the audience.  You simply don't walk out of the theater the same way that you walked into it.  American Hustle is the opposite of those movies.  It's Teflon.  Had it been released in May or August, it would have been considered the highbrow hit of the summer, a pleasant alternative to superheroes and explosions.  Instead, it's coasting through award season on the reputation of the players involved regardless of the actual film they've created.

And yet, when/if American Hustle ends up taking home a truckload of Oscars, I'll likely be filled not with righteous fury, but instead with mild annoyance.  I long ago realized that whether or not a movie wins trophies, that has no serious bearing on my enjoyment of the film going forward.  If a movie is really great, it will persist for years and even generations, no matter the ultimate tally of little golden men.  I'm going to be watching Wolf and Her over and over again for years to come, while American Hustle will quickly become relegated to the kind of movie you stumble into on cable some Saturday afternoon and leave playing in the background while you check your email and eat a grilled cheese sandwich.  I trust that history will appropriately sort it all out in the end.  The real crime here is that there are smaller movies like Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club and Before Midnight that are never going to get the same kind of wide release and marketing platform as a slick awards ringer starring the likes of Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  Those movies actually depend upon the buzz generated from Oscar nominations to expand into more theaters and extend their theatrical runs.  It almost doesn't even matter if they win anything or not, as it's the simple act of being nominated which often determines how many people get the chance to actually see the film in a theater, which in turn plays a big part of how the film is eventually rolled out on home video.  So when I see the Academy lavishing praise upon Hustle while leaving Llewyn Davis twisting in the wind, I can't help but feel depressed about it.

So fuck it.  American Hustle certainly isn't bad, but it certainly isn't great either.  It is, at best, decent.  And it'll probably continue to win many awards.  My best prediction?  No matter what happens, in five years time Wolf Of Wall Street will still remain shorthand for excess and/or rampant nudity, with dumbass frat boys having Wolf-themed parties.  (They're doing it wrong.)  Meanwhile, you'll have completely forgotten that American Hustle ever existed in the first place.

Good riddance.

(Footnote: I watched American Hustle on Christmas Day with my parents, the first time we've ever made that particular holiday excursion.  It's pretty goddamn awkward watching a coked out Bradley Cooper try to fuck Amy Adams from behind in a grimy bathroom stall.  Then again, we almost went to see Wolf Of Wall Street.  So...bullet dodged.)


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Title: American Hustle
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Wigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Mashpee Commons (4K)