Is American Hustle really the best film of 2013? That is a question movie fans and the Academy will be asking all the way to Oscar Sunday, as David O. Russell’s slick and funny take on the real-life ABSCAM scandal finds itself gunning for Best Picture.
With 10 nominations, it’s tied with Gravity and one nod ahead of previous front-runner 12 Years a Slave in the race for the most coveted mantle piece in Hollywood – but does it truly deserve it?
We’ve previously looked at five reasons why Gravity should take home the award, now we list five reasons why American Hustle will most likely go home empty-handed.
1. Parts Greater Than the Whole
American Hustle is a very well-made, easy-to-like film. There are great moments here to be sure, but we shouldn’t get comfortable calling it a great film. The acting has earned most of the Academy’s attention – deservedly so. But is the movie, as a whole, as unified and effective as the awards-worthy acting in it? Nope. Once the fervor dies down, hindsight’s more objective eyes will likely file Hustle under “very good, but not great!’”
2. At Best, It’s Scorsese Lite
The fact that Scorsese released one of the most frenzied and engaging films of his career, Wolf of Wall Street, in the same year as Hustle only underscores how Russell’s inspired attempt to emulate the director pales in comparison to the real thing. With earlier efforts like Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings, Russell established his confident style right out of the gate -- a style that has softened somewhat in his more recent fare. It’s borderline disappointing that such a unique storyteller would dilute his voice in service of impersonating another filmmaker’s.
3. What’s the Movie Trying to Say?
A major consequence of O. Russell’s competing stylistic agendas is that Hustle lacks a key element that underlies his best work: a unifying theme or message. Concepts of identity and redemption, of who we are versus who we think we should be, are present and explored, but fail to fully resonate. The reason why Scorsese’s best films are labeled as such is because they’re grounded upon a strong emotional core. If only O. Russell paid as much attention to that detail as he did Scorsese’s visuals, then maybe he’d have a film worthy of standing tall with the greats instead of resting upon their shoulders.
4. The Story Doesn’t Add Up
If only the attention given the amazing performances trickled down into the screenplay. Russell did a page-one rewrite of the script, which originally was more of a black-and-white procedural about ABSCAM. While the rewrite populates the film with much-welcomed gray in its nuanced characters, Hustle ultimately is a series of well-executed tangents; set pieces more in service of a tone than a thematically coherent whole. Not convinced? Look at the story thread involving De Niro’s cameo as a dangerous gangster. After being introduced in one of the film’s pivotal scenes, the character is wrapped up offscreen, and only given lip service in Hustle’s final moments.
5. That Ending…
The film is more interested in spending time in the lives of its characters than servicing the plot. As a result, any attempt the movie makes to circle back to the story feels either obligatory or rushed – especially during Hustle’s final minutes. Christian Bale and Amy Adams’s con artists must redeem themselves with “one last con,” pulling one over the real “bad guys” in the film personified by Bradley Cooper’s morally lax FBI Agent. On the surface, it’s satisfying, until you start to dig into the messy beats that lead up to the tying of such a neat bow.
Do you think American Hustle will win Best Picture?