American Hustle and Now You See Me
I usually have an enormous appreciation for David Denby’s movie reviews. He wrote about American Hustle in a December issue of The New Yorker. I read the review before seeing the film. I then really looked forward to viewing the movie, especially since I truly enjoyed David Russell’s previous films such as Five Kings. I loved The Fighter and found Silver Linings Playbook delightful and quirky. Denby ended his review as follows: “In the world that Russell has created, if you don’t come to play you’re not fully alive. An art devoted to appetite has as much right to screen immortality as the most austere formal invention.”
My wife thoroughly loved the film. Though we almost always have an identical response, I did not enjoy this movie. Am I not fully alive? Do I lack a certain sense of humour? Do I disdain art devoted to appetite? In this essay, much more than a review, I want to explicitly set out my criteria for the success of films that belong to the genre of con artist flicks as the only way to explain why I am so critical of American Hustle. In fact, as you will see, I am more critical of American Hustle than Now You See Me even though the latter never strived to have any art cinematic qualities and was satisfied with razzle-dazzle and an off the rack polyester theme, probably because the director of the latter film was so much less ambitious yet fulfilled a good number of the expectations of a con movie reasonably well.
David Denby was not the only respected critic that loved American Hustle. Mark Kermode did as well. However, in his review in The Observer, he was both clearer about what he liked as well as about his ambivalent take on the film. “American Hustle is often deliriously good fun. Yet like the eye-popping costumes and note-perfect decor, there’s a sneaking sense that it’s all for show; an elaborate comb-over covering an absence of ‘truth’. While Silver Linings Playbook was all about the heart, this is ultimately all about the hair. But what hair!” As he wrote, “Whether this all adds up to something more than a brilliantly window-dressed period piece with ring-a-ding performances from an all-star cast remains to be seen.” Now You See Me has no pretence that it is really taking you anywhere. American Hustle suggests it is much deeper, but I want to show that the emperor has no clothes.
Todd Gilchrist similarly endorsed American Hustle, but undermined rather than underlined that endorsement as well. His ambivalence offered a complementary reason to that of Kermode and did not offer the same reason for his praise. He emphasized that the film was more concerned with the heart that the zany plot; the stress on the interactions among the characters and their development provided the main focus of the film. In contrast, Kermode delighted in the movie’s superficiality Gilchrist noted the effect of that superficiality in our indifference to what happens to any of the characters at the end of the film. “Russell and his ensemble fail to make audiences care about the end result precisely as much as they obviously did about creating it.” Positively, he insisted that, “the filmmaker distinguishes himself by creating a complex and compelling web of manipulation between the characters that eventually supersedes any of their scheming or con artistry. Russell trains his attention on how all of that behavior directly affects his leads on a deep and personal level and virtually ignores its impact anywhere else.”
That is certainly the film’s pretence. But it doesn’t work. In that case, superficiality for superficiality’s sake is the better choice than superficial distractions from a supposedly more profound level that is simply not there however much it is implied.
In my view, the movie is not only about fraud, but is a fraud, possibly an intentional one. And it is a fraud on multiple levels and far more crooked than even Peter Derbruge alleged in his article in Variety. He described the movie as an amalgam of “flamboyant 1970s caricatures run amok, so much hairspray and polyester, it makes your brain hurt”. He insisted that “this sloppy sprawl of a movie” offered “little consideration for the fine art of narrative” with characters “free to squawk and stammer and peacock as much as they please, providing the same illicit pleasure that has overtaken so much contemporary comedy in which improvisation is king.” For him, the performances of the actors threatened to run away with the movie.
Derbruge drew the same conclusion that I do. In spite of brilliant acying, costuming and sound track, American Hustle is “a messy C-minus movie at best.” Is the fumbling, meandering episodic plot with its loose ends that never stay plastered down on the heads of the characters just a playful kowtowing to appetite while trying to have it both ways by kneeling before the Goddess of Love as the only authentic emotion that can stand above the fraud and farce characteristic of both sides of the political and justice system? At least in Now You See Me there is no suggestion that you really have to believe that the FBI agent truly and deeply loves the French female interpol agent. From the very beginning, it is simply an artificial and probably totally unnecessary plot device.
American Hustle, on the other hand, is not simply about fraud; it itself is a fraud – and on multiple levels but I will only deal with six. American Hustle is a fraud about fraud. It is a fraud about history. It is a fraud about art. It is a fraud about values. It is a fraud about character. And it is most of all a fraud about life.
A Fraud About Fraud
First and foremost, American Hustle is a fraud about fraud. The movie is purportedly a movie about con artists. After faithfully establishing the basic pre-conditions for conveying the fraud, the movie manages to breach every other single core convention of the genre. Is this deliberate, part of playing with the rules in favour of anarchy, spontaneity and mad invention?
Any con must be precisely characteristic of and contemporary with its time. This, American Hustle certainly achieves through its costuming from bouffon hairdos to aviator glasses and plunging necklines. Settings, voice patterns, characters and context all reinforce the effect. The symbol of the film is a knife in a silver bejewelled case that you can buy in any shouk in the Middle East for a few dollars. (In reality, just such a knife was bought by the real life con artist, Mel Weinber, in Athens for $2.75.) In the movie, the FBI character pretending to be a sheik (Michael Pena) presents the knife with all its glitter as a gift to the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito played by Jeremy Renner (Angello Errichetti in real life who was both a state senator and mayor of Camden, NJ). The film is glitzy as exposes the worthless glitz on which these frauds are based.
American Hustle is set in the same period as that other Hollywood flick directed by Ben Affleck, Argo, that was supposed to be a dramatization of an actual historical event in which Canadian diplomats, led by Ken Taylor, devised a con on Iranian officials to facilitate the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran. Affleck turned the event into a political thriller directed by the CIA, more specifically, himself as the CIA operative, Tony Mendez. Like Argo, which was nominated last year for seven Academy Awards and won three, including Best Picture, while grossing a quarter million dollars in box office receipts, there is a good chance that American Hustle may succeed in the same way because the Academy Awards seems to reward fiction dressed up in fact where the fiction deliberately and ostentatiously fucks with the facts.
However, American Hustle does not even claim that it is based on a true story. It just says that some of what takes place actually happened. In other words, though some facts are borrowed, the film is itself pure fiction disguising any facts that may be found loosely spread throughout the movie. Was the imagery of the late seventies in America all a fraud. As someone who witnessed Anwar Sadat coming to Jerusalem to make peace and totally immersed in the resettlement of Indochinese refugees in Canada in subsequent years, I would claim they were not. They were years in which individuals and groups risked their lives for truth and freedom. But this is an essay about fiction.
In Argo, the extent of the humour was a surprise; in American Hustle, comedy is the core. Argo, in all respects, focuses on the caper rather than the con, with a stress on the virtual impossibility of pulling off the task at hand, but the obstacles are overcome with ingenuity, intelligence, convincing deceit and serendipity all along the way to the very tense ending when the diplomats just get through Iranian immigration in the nick of time – one of the grossest fabrications in the movie among which there are too many to name.
Those fabrications begin with the fact that, as President Carter stated, Canada deserved 90% of the credit. Tony Mendez was only in Tehran a day and a half. Ken Taylor is reduced, as one critic noted, to a kindly concierge. The Brits who initially hosted the diplomats, organized their move to the Canadian ambassador’s residence when the British embassy location was deemed to be too exposed and dangerous for them. However, the movie gratuitously presents the Brits as cowards rejecting the diplomatic refugees. Even little New Zealand is portrayed for its cowardice – after all, the Kiwis refused to participate in the Iraq fiasco so they get no credit for organizing and driving the diplomats to the airport. But, after, all, as Ben Affleck said, the film was said to be “based” on a true story rather than representing the truth. Thus does Hollywood reward fiction for wearing the mask of fact.
American Hustle goes even further in this direction and openly declares the film to be a fictional story that merely draws on historical events that actually took place. Since the theme of the film is the murky mixture of reality and fantasy, of truth and lies and how fact and fiction are blended, this, at first glance, seems to be appropriate. But where the film is religiously devoted to the authenticity of the surface features of the story – hair-dos and microwaves, furniture and dresses – the film draws on historical events only to turn them upside down and inside out. The message is given at the very beginning before the film even starts with an authentic restoration of the Columbia Pictures insignia from the late seventies combined with the fauxgo late seventies fake design-style insignias for Atlas Entertainment (The Dark Knight Rises, Killer Elite) and Annapurna Pictures (her, The Grandmaster, Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, The Master, Lawless).
Secondly, in addition to appearing true to the period, a con movie requires a set of contrasting characters – often genial and light-hearted but highly intelligent con artists in contrast to bumbling cops and menacing criminals. The film has the latter two roles in spades with Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as the manic mad FBI agent as a foil to the quiet menace portrayed by the cameo appearance of Robert De Niro as the Miami Mafia boss cracking sinister jokes. But the latter is totally redundant and the inclusion of one of the mobsters as a seducer of Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) as the wife of the main con artist, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Baine), is but another loose strand of Rosenfeld’s uncontrollable comb-over toupé. DiMaso, on the other hand, is so over the top as to require us to suspend credulity to enjoy the film.
Further, the con artists as portrayed in the film are anything but intelligent or clever so that their final trick played on the FBI comes across as a contrived unconvincing ruse rather than as a plausible surprise, but one fully accepted as arising from their characters. For that is how they see themselves and each other even as they display neither intelligence nor imagination. Irving Rosenberg as the stand-in for the real Mel Weinberg played by Christian Bale is hailed by his con artist partner in the film, Sydney Prosser played by Amy Adams, as a genius of the scam, while Irving in turn praises Sydney for her awesome intelligence. The scam is that so many critics accepted these portrayals even if their behaviour indicates no such traits. They are petty shysters capable of, at best, pulling off very low level mundane scams – selling fake art and asking $5,000 as a non-refundable finder’s fee from desperate people in need of a loan. They never indicate any ability to pull off the most spectacular sting of its kind in American history that netted and convicted a senator, six congressmen, a New Jersey state senator, a mayor, several Philadelphia city councillors and an immigration officer for accepting bribes.
However, other than enhancing the authentic portrayal of the look of the period and making a half-hearted effort to construct characters true to the genre, the movie fails to establish the other key pre-conditions of a grand con: a conspicuous prize at stake and a very conscientious and determined set of con artists who have to think hard and long – not in movie time – to come up with a convincing plan. The prize at stake is simply the waving of the FBI blackmailing of the two con artists. There is no contemplation, no weighing and debating over the plan except in the comic continuing shaggy dog joke of the tension between the wild FBI operative and his very dour, by-the-book frugal boss; there is simply the offer of briefcases of cash to public officials for assisting in getting Atlantic city gambling licenses with no presentation of why or how most of these particular officials could even be of any assistance.. There is certainly no conscientious determination to succeed.
Now You See Me also has a great cast – Jessie Eisenberg as the brilliant arrogant sleight-of-hand hustler, Woody Harrelson as a mentalist who is not tricked by his own trickery, Dave Franco as the quick-as-a-whip pickpocket and physical contortionist, and Isla Fisher as the escape artist. Morgan Freeman performs his usual magic as the one persona in the film not only grounded in but insistent on the necessity of truth exposing the tricks oif fabulists as a former reformed magician now devoted to the exposure of the fraud behind magic. The film fails because the greatest con of all, the FBI agent played by Mark Ruffalo, is totally convincing as a bumbling cop always behind the action but totally unconvincing as a con artist. So we feel really cheated in the end even though the film sustains its high-paced caper and magical qualities until the final disappointment. Of course, this film has it easier because it has no pretensions that it is offering a profound statement about the confusion between fact and fiction.
Most of the complementary requirements for a con movie are evident in Now You See Me. In American Hustle, if the pre-conditions are only there in part, the actual conditions requisite to the con genre of film-making are almost totally absent. Is this deliberate? Was Russell merely using the con genre as itself a deliberate fraud to really tell a story about interpersonal relations? After all, all human relations begin with presenting what is, in effect, partially a false front to another in the way we dress and act and in the stories we choose to tell. Human relations begin in part as a con. False fronts have their allure but they also misdirect the emotions. On the other hand, each of the main female characters – both Sydney Prossner and Rosalyn Rosenfeld – express a deep desire to be loved for who they truly are. The core of the tension is not between cognitive truth and fabulism as Now You See Me would have it, but between emotional truth and fabulism as Russell seems to suggest.
Read Part II: The Norms of a Con Movie: Cognitive versus Emotional Truth