American Hustle and Now You See Me – Part II
The Norms of a Con Movie: Cognitive versus Emotional Truth
In Part I of my essay, I offered a potted overview and quick comparison of both films and showed why both fulfilled the preconditions for falling into the genre of a con movie. In this second part, I set forth the norms characteristic of a con movie and use those norms to expose not only the failures of both films, but the competing tensions between fiction and emotional versus cognitive reality. This is most important for American Hustle that has been acclaimed by many critics as a gem that elevates the con genre to an art by emphasizing the emotional inter-personal dimensions over the illusionary mechanics of the con If that is the case, then the thrust of the movie is deliberately fraudulent, using a movie about fraud as a false front for a movie about the emotions that tie people together and divide them.
Once a movie satisfies the pre-conditions for inclusion in the con genre, there are a number of characteristics which offer guidelines for assessing the quality of a con movie. There are five fundamental conditions. The movie, by its very nature, must be a concoction, a piece of art itself that combines different ingredients, but does so using skill and intelligence to contrive a mystery. It is not sufficient that the acting be great, and the acting is great in both movies. To achieve that mystery, there must be careful preparation and the concocted assemblage of different elements given time to brew. So American Hustle, which is a fictionalized version of the ABSAM scandal, begins with the character of Rosenfeld – Mel Weinberg in real life – with Christian Bale playing the role on the screen, a small time shyster with a chain of cleaning stores who sells art forgeries on the side and, for a fee, promises to arrange loans that he is never able to do. A concoction to contrive a mystery is surely the most important missing element in this film. You just cannot believe that politicians were trapped by such a poorly devised con.
Louis Leterrier’s film, Now You See Me, was without a doubt a concoction and had a mystery – who was the overseeing eye who masterminded the con. Unfortunately, the repetitive commentaries on distraction versus keeping your eyes peeled on what the artists do not want you to see, combined with the need to spend time on explaining each of the magic tricks, fits the theme of the tension between the fictive and fact but takes away from the suspense and interest in the con.
Second, there must be a conspiracy, an agreement between persons to deceive, mislead, or defraud others. Now You See Me fails in this respect as well, misleading the viewer into believing there is a conspiracy and then revealing at the end that it was just a trick of one person, for the magicians were just tools to carry out the scam and were not in on it – hence the feeling left in viewers that they were cheated. For instead of the cleverest trick of all saved for the end, the audience was offered the cheapest trick of all. In American Hustle, you are offered the deception, the misleading and the defrauding, but without any conspiratorial creativity, unless the clumsy cooperation between the FBI and Rosenfeld counts. But then the film lacks magic, the essential ingredient when reality has to be fabricated and then that fabrication reconciled with the laws of nature.
Third, an essential condition of a con movie is that the con artists must not only be convincing but must carry a sense of deep conviction. The conspiratorial concoction cannot just be a lark even if it is presented that way. American Hustle lacks any conviction by anyone -except the FBI agent who does not just have a deep conviction – he is obsessed. Other than the FBI agent, the characters lack any firmly held belief which drives them so that when they are convicted and sentenced for their fraud, or get away with it, the conviction for committing a criminal offence either counter-balances the initial conviction or endorses it by allowing the characters to get off free. Now You See Me makes a feint in that direction, one which is eventually found wanting, but there is at least the effort. American Hustle does not even try.
American Hustle most fails in convincing the audience, based on a compelling and conclusive narrative, that the tale they are being told is true even when it is not. In this case, the creators of the movie had the advantage of drawing on a true story, but it is told in such a way that at best the truth of the tale becomes irrelevant and, at worst, the story becomes too unbelievable as the fiction is allowed to overwhelm and drown the factual foundation. Instead of ensuring that the audience is left with a sense of reality without a margin of doubt, however much one chooses to play with the facts, one is left only convinced that what has been presented is totally fictitious even if drawn from reality. Perhaps this is why many viewers enjoyed the movie – they did not mind being tricked into watching a chick-flic in the guise of a con movie.
Finally, and this is the greatest success of the caper, Now You See Me, for it has just the right complex labyrinth of a twisted convoluted tale to intrigue and entertain. On this measure, American Hustle fails completely. For the convoluted plot is not about the con, but about the two intertwined love triangles of Sydney, Irving and Richie, on one hand and Sydney, Irving and Irving’s wife on the other hand. These convoluted plots of jealousy sustain and enhance the comedy but detract from the con and the caper.
If American Hustle fails to provide every single necessary condition for a top notch successful con movie, the film seems to go out of its way in gratuitously trouncing on the conduct required of the characters. The single most important one is that a con requires an artist in control of the action who is responsible for creating the illusion. The film need not tell us who is really in control and can save that trick for the end, but in a story about a supposedly brilliant con artist based on the real character renamed from Weinberg to Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who in the Hollywood fictional magic is paired with a supposedly intelligent, cunning and seductive British partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), we instead have a vain fool with a few amateur tricks who vies with his partner in insisting how he has to rely on her superior intelligence while she insists he is the most clever con artist of all time, but neither is very convincing that their respective convictions bear any resemblance to reality. More importantly, the comedy in the movie depends on the competition for control with the manic FBI agent, Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), who keeps insisting that he is running the show. There is just too much insistence and too little demonstration of control. In Now You See Me, the control is revealed at the end but without the knowledge of the way it was implemented, the control simply becomes a deus ex machina.
Con movies are, in part, satires of modern societies that have been constructed to be almost totally dependent on expertise and the use of specialists and consultants. We trust them. We depend on them. In con movies, that expertise must be there, but the movie must show how that expertise bites the hand that feeds it. In this movie, all we get is a mundane and seedy, even pitiable scam which has more kinship with the cheating carried out by supposedly illustrious Canadian Senators than with a highly intelligent and very cleverly executed fraud. The movie only convinces the viewer that the politicians had to be really dumb to be caught by such a scheme. There is, in fact, no real con. Just a lie and briefcases full of money. A lie does not a con make. In Now You See Me, the magic is truly expert.
Further, in addition to the control of a very creative and intelligent artist supplemented by very specialized expertise, the con requires intermediaries, connections and contacts that forge the links between the con artists and the victims. Sydney Prosser, poses as an aristocratic Brit with banking connections. Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld incredibly becomes himself the connection by befriending Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor and key populist politician. Carmine Polito is the true connector who unknowingly leads the con artists and the FBI directly to the corrupt politicians. I just could not believe in the ease with which the close friendship was forged in light of the absolute absence of any guarded and critical self protection of any of the politicians. They all deserved to go to jail, more because of their utter stupidity than their outright greed.
In reality, Angelo Errichetti, the Camden New Jersey mayor and state senator, a foul-mouthed megalomaniacal crook in the very depth of his bones and not the soft-hearted politician who deeply cared for his constituents and their jobs, in the movie just takes bribes only so he could make connections with the politicians, and he does achieve that. How can you believe that a politician who was all heart and at heart honest could have played such a role? Now You See Me very cleverly does away with the need for intermediaries; the one who you are misdirected to believe is the intermediary, played by Freeman Morgan, is in fact – dare I say it – the real target of the scam. In fact, in both films, the idea of a great heart providing coherence for the movie is the greatest scam of all – but it is on the audience.
Another element of conduct required in a con movie is a constituency. The con artist must have some of the attributes of a Robin Hood. Thus, in Now You See Me, the four magicians constituting the Four Horseman in Las Vegas allow all the money they steal from the Paris Bank seemingly while they are on stage in Las Vegas to rain down on the audience in Las Vegas so that the magicians are not the beneficiaries of the now impoverished bank. Similarly, in their third and most audacious rip off in New York of half a billion dollars, once again the tricksters let the dollars rain down on the New York Street crowds. In American Hustle, there is no constituency for the robbers. Only Mayor Pelosi is said to have a constituency that he takes care of, but they lose out when Pelosi goes to jail.
American Hustle does include one other key characteristic concerned with conduct and does this job very well. The major characters cannot just be shrewd calculators. They must have and demonstrate heart and a deeply felt concern. Sydney and Irving do so for each other. Irving demonstrates his care for Mayor Polito. He genuinely respects the commitment the mayor supposedly has to the people (In real life, Weinberg really liked Erichetti because the latter openly and truly loved making money even more than Weinberg did without any pretence.) In the movie, Rosenfeld tries to protect Polito even as he participates in his entrapment, but the contradiction and his personal anguish are never made credible. There was not enough magic to fool us. In Now You See Me the deep level of concern is revealed at the end to be between the FBI agent and the French interpol agent, but the love is totally absent of the wonderful magic in the rest of the movie.
The next set of characteristics to measure the success of a genre con movie has to do with how the film is consummated. Is the ending of the film built into each component so that, even if it emerges as a surprise, in retrospect you feel stupid because you were unable to put the clues together that were there all along? In American Hustle the ending is totally flat; the politicians are offered their bribes, and that is virtually it. The result has little to do with the process. In Now You See Me, although a few clues are planted along the way, they appear arbitrary when they emerge – such as the boxes of material that belonged to the magician who died performing a trick when he was put in a mental case that was sunk and he never managed to escape, cases in the basement when the most agile magician runs from the FBI in pursuit and jumps down the chute. Those clues are not deeply interwoven into the plot. Consequently, the ending comes, but, as the magicians themselves opine, “You had me.” But they (and we) are had simply because everything that takes place is a distraction.
Secondly, what eventually emerges must not only be consciously interwoven into the plot, it turns out to be the exact converse of what seemed to be the case. The narrative of the film is effectively turned inside out. Now You See Me follows this formula to a T so that experts on the genre can guess the outcome, but that guess is not a result of watching and seeing what others fail to see but because one knows the formula – a sign that the formula has not been well applied. American Hustle does not use this device at all so that the confusion between the FBI role and that of the con artists appears itself to be the scam and the role of the mafia is just an irrelevant distraction because there is some correspondence to reality just where it is not needed for dramatic effect.
Thirdly, in the genre we mentioned the need to build in a Robin Hood effect in the conduct of the characters. This is done as we indicated in American Hustle, but it has no relevance to the ending. In the genre con movie, some of the ironic satisfaction emerges because, in the end, it is that consideration, and not the bad intent of the con, that has the greatest consequences on the ending. The so-called “Consideration” in both American Hustle and Now You See Me have no substantial relevance to the ending in either film.
Further, during the film, there is usually a key contract made. For example, in Now You See Me, the lead FBI agent and the representative from Interpol, who turns out to be the love interest for the FBI agent in charge, just before they are to drive off in pursuit of the most physically adept magician in the exciting action car chase scene, make a pact. The FBI agent agrees to trust the interpol cop. But he betrays that trust and there is both no significance to the betrayal and no consequences.
In American Hustle, there are so many compacts made and broken that it is hard to keep track – between Rosenfeld and his clever, seductive partner in con, Sydney Prosser, between Rosenfeld and his ditzy wife who inherently cannot keep her mouth shut no matter how much she pledges to do so, between Rosenfeld and Richie DiMaso, the FBI agent, between Rosenfeld and Mayor Piloso. For example, Richie promises both Rosenfeld and Prosser that they can only escape jail if they cooperate in four traps but keeps escalating the required trade off. The very premise of the con and manipulation mean that compacts are only made to be twisted, turned and eventually broken. This is the essence of a con movie without which it cannot work. But the twists, the fractures and the breaks are not simply zigs and zags in the plot to make us dizzy, but must be made to feel inevitable and almost necessary.
Finally, the movie has to work like clockwork, with a continuous plot moving like a conveyor belt faster and faster. Initially, the connection with reality and the continuity of American Hustle is provided both by the initial documentary style – the prose on the screen indicating the precise date and location – and then picked up by the voice-overs of both Rosenfeld and Prosser, but even this technique gets lost and buried by the frenzied careening in all directions of the plot and the interactions among the characters so that, by the end, a movie-goer feels like he or she has been on a wild carnival ride rather than tied intellectually in knots by the unfolding plot.
In the case of Louis Letterier’s film, Now You See Me, the continuity gets lost in a different way. As David Denby wrote in his New Yorker review, “Louis Leterrier, may little realize that an audience’s appetite for cleverness and shape-shifting invention has limits. People need to believe in something of what they’re seeing; they want to be bound by a single strong emotion. There is much talk, in Now You See Me, of ‘misdirection’—a magician’s way of diverting an audience’s attention. Leterrier has laid in a complicated backstory, with secondary characters who confront one another grimly; he has staged many chases from nowhere to nowhere. It seems that the director, who also made ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘Clash of the Titans,’ will do anything to distract us from the emptiness to which he has devoted himself.” So although the conveyer belt moves with a continuous and faster and faster speed, it twists and turns so much as to make us dizzy and, in the end, the problem is that there is nothing on the belt except the dictum that if you mess with fabulism, you will not pass Go but instead go directly to jail.
Finally, a con movie has to tie the various strands together in the conclusion. First, there is the de rigeur congratulations of the con artists if they are successful and the boastful acclaim granted to those who expose, use and ensure justice rules over cheating. American Hustle offers an example of the latter while Now You See Me epitomizes the former.
A second ingredient required at the conclusion of the film is the confession – owning up to the most fundamental lie and being forgiven for it is the usual formula. In Now You See Me there is a silly substitute belonging to a chic-flick where the FBI agent confesses his love for the French interpol agent. It is like finding Easter eggs at a Hanukkah party.
Third, a con movie should always be about a fundamental tension and controversy. Now You See Me is clearly about the interplay of dissembling and reality in both art and real life. The film ends by the imprisonment of the reformed fabulist now devoted to reality and the victory of the greatest fabulist of all. Although the final result is clear, the resolution is totally unconvincing; it is just a deus ex machina. Similarly, America Hustle ends with the victory of justice and truth over fraud, but there is no justice for Richie DiMaso exceeding all standards and engaging in as much manipulation and entrapment as any con artist. So in neither movie do we leave with both an intellectual and emotional sense of satisfaction over the resolution.
Now to play out the requirements of an inherently complex plot within a period of ninety to one hundred and fifty minutes requires a number of contractions and they are sometimes the hardest to carry out. Fortunately, American Hustle is itself based on a contraction, on the scandal known as Abscam, initially meaning the “Arab scam” but then history was rewritten when the American-Arab Relations Committee objected and it was renamed the “Abdul scam” after the name of the fictitious front firm used to carry out the scam. Unfortunately, there is just not enough contraction in the movie and it takes two-thirds of the movie before the name of the scandal is even mentioned. In reality, the mafia end up being dropped from the plot, suggested as a result of the real menace they pose compared to that of the naive and penny-ante thieving politicians. But why then include them in the film at all? It is an unnecessary distraction.
On the other hand, this is perhaps the greatest virtue of Now You See Me. The speed at which the movie moves from one magical act on a grand stage to the next is as breathtaking as the breakneck car chase in the action portion of the film. There is just not a wasted minute, including all the efforts to explain the magic tricks. Of course, that is why we sympathize when Morgan Freeman is locked up, for though we appreciate his succinct revelations of how each magic act is carried out, we, at the same time, resent him for destroying the fabulism. We want him punished for being a spoiler. In American Hustle, unfortunately, we are left indifferent at the final outcome.
One final note, The creativity of a film within a genre depends not only on a mastery of all elements of the form but the ingenious way and creativity in their implementation. If the director makes those rules too obvious, then the movie magic is lost. It as if Sophocles not only wrote his plays but also had to teach you Aristotle’s analysis of how tragedies and comedies worked. The job of movie-makers is to be creators not to show how well they know Northrop Frye’s structural analysis of works of fiction. There is thus an implicit constitutional contract between critics and creators – the responsibility for revealing the magic belongs to critics; the responsibility for performing the magic belongs to the creator. If a critic interposes his or herself in the immediate appreciation of the creative process, he or she deserves to spend the rest of his or her life behind bars. The critic-in-depth should only be read after the house lights come back on.
Now none of this is to say that the rules and norms should not be played with. A creative artist always does. But for a reason. And not for Russell’s deep need for displaying anarchic energy and comedic nuttiness or for scamming us by making a film about interpersonal attachments which seem flimsy at best under the guise of a con movie. Let me illustrate with a final discussion of the scumbag grifter’s wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld played by Jennifer Lawrence in an outstanding performance, but one more appropriate to comedy improv than a coherent movie role. In gangster and con movies, the wives are fixtures in the domestic background and mistresses are the blond mob molls. Russell reversed types and made Rosalyn, the wife, the mob moll with a foul motor mouth and spitfire temper and she is central to the plot and not a decorative side effect. Such a wife would have doomed the con artist long before he achieved the status he has in the movie. At one moment she appears the ideal ditz – told never to put metal in a toaster oven, she does just that and blows up the kitchen. The scene is hilarious, but does it make any sense, especially when the movie later suggests that the apparent stupidity is just her own con. One can get away with this or making the FBI agent a mother’s boy who wears curlers to bed in a movie, like Seven Psychopaths, where the central theme is anarchy. But a con movie bows down before the idol of Apollo and must be coherent and intelligent, inventive and so rational that we are taken in. We go to such movies to be taken in not just taken.
So a fraud about an historical fraud is totally fraudulent to that history, betrays its artistic heritage and creates very interesting characters but ones who are themselves frauds and unbelievable. And to what purpose? So we can laugh at sleaze and criminality? A con movie in the end really works because it is true about one thing – life – not because it uses real life to create a fraudulent fiction..