All across the country, people are confessing. They are lurking with only their most trusted confidantes in shadowy corners. They glance around nervously to make sure no one is in earshot, because, from what they hear, what they are about to reveal should bring them great shame.
“I didn’t really like American Hustle,” one whispers, heart pulsing like Justin Bieber on drag race night.
Eyes darting once more to ensure that they are truly in a cone of confidence, the other replies, overwhelmed to have found a kindred spirit: “I actually thought it was bad, too!”
Yes, all around the country people are coming to terms with the reality that American Hustle was just, at best, a pretty good movie (or, at worst, kind of a hot mess) and the shame that they’ve been bullied into feeling about that realization. That’s because somehow, some way, a group of people we’ll groaningly call “tastemakers” found some mountaintop to climb and declare it the best movie of the year. And we’ve been forced to listen to them, because they are on a mountaintop and we are not and that’s just apparently how these things work.
These people have given American Hustle the New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture prize and the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy. They have implausibly given this movie a 93 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating. And now they have made it a frontrunner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, for the love of God.
And to those people I say: I dare you to tell me what this movie was about.
Give me a detailed plot description of what happened in this movie. Because hell if I know. Hell if any of us know, because let’s be real: this was the most convoluted, confusing, and nonsensical plot of a Best Picture contender in a long time. And we all saw Inception.
I mean, yes, obviously the movie was about Christian Bale and Amy Adams as con artists and lovers who are forced to work with Bradley Cooper and the FBI to nab Jeremy Renner for his shady dealings. Obviously it was based on the real-life Abscam sting.
But then the movie kind of started skipping along like some tangled tumbleweed of confusion. Who’s conning who now? Why is Amy Adams still talking with a British accent? Why is Jennifer Lawrence even here? But—wait!—where did Jennifer Lawrence go? She was so much fun! Is that Robert De Niro? Bradley Cooper is engaged? Wait, did they just get caught? No, they didn’t, right? Do I even care anymore?
There was a lot of good in American Hustle. It was impeccably acted, with each star deserving their Oscar nominations. The Heat was also impeccably acted, though, but it’s not a Best Picture frontrunner. At times, Hustle was also really funny and exciting. The Heat was also, at times, really funny and exciting, but it’s not a Best Picture frontrunner. I’m not saying The Heat should be a Best Picture frontrunner, people! I’m just making the point that it’s kind of mind-boggling that American Hustle is!
Again, this is not a hit piece! American Hustle was a lot of fun. Well, it was a lot of fun once Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper went to the disco, Jennifer Lawrence torched that speech about nail polish, and the nap-inducing snooze that was its first 45 minutes were over and the “wild ride” we kept being told the movie was finally started. But so much of its accolades are owed to the smoke and mirrors that made it so fun—specifically the smoke from Amy Adams’ scorching down-to-there cleavage and the mirrors on her iridescent ‘70s gowns. There’s a reason, folks, that one of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s best-landed jokes at this year’s Golden Globes was, “Bradley Cooper is here, star of American Hustle. Interesting trivia: The original title of that movie was Explosion at the Wig Factory.”
Movies are meant to dazzle, and American Hustle does just that. That’s why I liked it. (I really did like this movie.) The Explosion at the Wig Factory was about as big of a hoot as you can comfortably call a tragedy like an explosion. (And this explosion was fictional and in jest, so you can call it a pretty big hoot!) There was a kinetic energy, a vibrancy that leapt off the screen that did, indeed, dazzle. And there was an underlying compassion for each character, no matter how crooked or misguided or totally bananas. That’s a specialty of David O. Russell’s and it was on full display in American Hustle.
The problem is that the vibrancy and the compassion and the “dazzle” were as polyester as Jeremy Renner’s suits: gauche and tacky and so cheap you could see the seams tearing away. The film was a synthetic blend of too many things—a farce of ‘70s procedurals, a pointed satire on the pitfalls of ambition, a thriller, a caper, a character study—when it would’ve been so much better had it been entirely a pure-blend of classier material.
In a year of cinema that brimmed with filmmakers offering something new and brave, American Hustle comes off even more glaringly as a hodgepodge retread of things that have worked for Russell before—the zany ensemble acting against type, the convoluted whirligig storyline, the anti-heroes as protagonists. It was a cashmere year for movies, so why are we cheering polyester? When Gravity is reinventing the wonder with which movies can be made, Her embracing the unexplainable weirdness of love, 12 Years a Slave daring us to search our own consciences, and The Wolf of Wall Street seizing the glory of excess with unabashed glee, why are we supposed to be so enamored by a movie so scattershot? So empty? So safe?
As it stands, American Hustle is just behind 12 Years a Slave as the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, according to Vegas odds-makers. 12 Years has 1/3 odds; Hustle has 3/1. The Academy likes it even more than we have may had been conditioned to expect after months of the American Hustle Is Cool onslaught that led up to nomination day, with the film scoring unexpected nods for Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams in addition to the surething mention for Jennifer Lawrence. It recently picked up the SAG Award for Best Ensemble. It’s buzzier and sexier than 12 Years is, that’s for sure. Guys, this movie could win Best Picture! For real!
The rise of American Hustle is the case exemplar of the shameful self-consciousness and the pack mentality that’s arisen in film coverage. It’s a narrative that’s escalated in recent years, and now it’s utterly predictable. Industry “insiders,” reporters, and critics clamor for bragging rights to be among the first to see a much talked-about film at the first film festival it plays at, or the first industry screening. Then, just as quickly, they clamor to be the first to pronounce its fate, typically on the polar verdicts of “Best Movie Ever” or “Embarrassment to Cinema.”
There’s glory, apparently, in claiming credit for canonizing or crucifying a film before more than a few dozen people have a chance to see or digest it. It leads to a snowball effect. Suddenly, it becomes uncool to disagree with the hyperbolic consensus, as you might be branded with the scarlet letter of someone who doesn’t get it—“it” being the fact that this is a movie you’ve been mandated to like or loathe.
American Hustle, with its low-cut dresses and uber-macho caper plot and Jennifer Lawrence, turned these professionals into a coterie of college-minded critics, barking the praises of O. Russell’s film with all the threatening embellishments of the frat boy down the hall demanding that you enjoy Fight Club. “Bro! You gotta see American Hustle. That joint is crazy! You might even call it a ‘wild ride!’” “Oh, yeah, definitely, uh…bro,” you reply, nerve-addled. “I already saw it. I totally loved it, too. Epic…or something.”
Feel threatened no longer, my friend. Don’t feel insecure about not liking a movie just because those who are cool, or at least pretending to be so, insist you should. Don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade—or, in this case, a just-OK movie just-OK. You’re in a safe place now. We no longer have to think it. We can say it, loud and proud.
American Hustle is overrated.