OP-ED Series: Controversies For Popular Films: Part Two: American Hustle

December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

David O. Russell is a case study in artistic evolution. Ever the controversial but undeniable talent, Russell started out doing small, personal romantic comedies, tried his hand at action movies and found his niche doing award-winning dramedies. The guy flat out knows how to get original performances out of his actors while mining the depths of genre fare where the ground is well treaded and there isn’t much new territory to cover. Some people accuse him of aping more iconic directors. Three Kings feels like a David Fincher war movie, The Fighter is a more highly polished version of “Rocky” crossed with Raging Bull, I Heart Huckabees is just all over the map, The Silver Linings Play Book is a dressed up high concept romantic comedy and so on; Russell doesn’t seem to want to tackle any genre twice, even if he manages to use a lot of the same actors in multiple movies. He’s become a perennial award contender and his direction undeniably results in gold statues or at least nominations for the majority of his casts.

I will ignore the long-gestating partially unfinished film Nailed that he made many years ago and is still technically in post-production. It’s his Dark Blood (the River Phoenix movie that couldn’t be completed due to its star’s death and budgetary constraints), his Don Quixote (at least the Terry Gilliam version), his Rendezvous with Rama (an actual 10+ year-old would-be David Fincher film being championed by Morgan Freeman) and so on.

He has amassed an increasingly impressive list of actors to direct, both young and old, in their prime, just being launched and in need of career revivals. He gave now Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill his first audition and film role in the aforementioned I Heart Huckabees via Hill’s family friend and the star of Huckabees, Dustin Hoffman (more on him later) and Hill, though not having worked with Russell since, is now in contention ‘against’ American Hustle for awards consideration in the abstractly similar Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street, which I have now written on extensively.

American Hustle is Russell’s latest film. It is a loose re-telling of the FBI’s ABSCAM (Arab Scam) sting to bring down corrupt politicians accepting bribes on primitive hidden video in 1978 to expedite permits for casinos in New Jersey thanks to the recent legalization of gambling in the state. Supposedly the vast majority of information on the sting operation is truly Top Secret or if the files do exist and can be viewed, they’re heavily redacted, which seems pretty standard for any secret government project.

The ABSCAM story has been floating around Hollywood for decades, with variations floating casting choices such as Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi circa the early 1980’s, just after the sting had concluded and would still be considered current events. However, without concrete facts to get the story from point A to point B and because Russell values spontaneity and capriciousness in his films, the script was, at best, a vague outline for filming on this project.

That’s a common phrasing in Hollywood as scripts get changed or re-written on the fly all the time. Many famous productions have reported that the actors received their “sides” (the script pages for that day of filming pertaining to their character) only the night before or the morning of, with no additional pages for context. It’s frowned upon but common. Many actors hate it as they say they feel clueless as to the nature of the project they’re working on until they see a full cut of the film in post-production and in some absurd cases say they had no real concept of the film’s true nature until they watched it at the official world premier along with the rest of the audience.

That’s perfectly fine. Many iconic scenes are made up on the fly, many iconic lines sprouted in the moment from the actor’s own head, such as Robert De Niro’s iconic “You talking to me?” monologue in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Dustin Hoffman’s golden age moment in Midnight Cowboy where he exclaims as small time hustler Ratso Rizzo “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” to a real life cabbie that tried to force his car through the production and it made it into the finished film. Many examples of such unintended iconography in Hollywood exist, almost too numerous to consider aberrant. In fact, it’s an intangible but indispensible part of the art and culture of film. Apart from the incestuous nature of all these examples- Hoffman, Scorsese, De Niro and the rest, it’s telling that actors are not mere performers, but true creators as well.

The problem is that American Hustle’s writing is being praised as much as the acting. However, when the so-called writing is coming to the actors in the moment via improvisation, interpretation and extrapolation, it calls into question the validity of any professed writing for the finished film that is receiving all this praise. If it gets any screenwriting Awards, to whom do the spoils go? Was it the actors’ own brilliance, was it Russell’s direction or is it some hybrid of Russell’s screenwriting and direction eliciting even better lines from his actors in the moment? There is no cut and dry answer. As a film fan, I think this is an acceptably murky conclusion. As a journalist, I agree with other pundits who feel American Hustle should be rendered ineligible for any screenwriting awards, as it is neither adapted nor original. It’s a more polished version of the Christopher Guest mockumentary, in which his actors are given a direction to take their scenes in, or an overall premise to the film, but they’re then allowed to make up all their dialogue on the spot and experiment with their characters as much as they please.

Clearly American Hustle is far more polished, controlled and exact a production than Guest’s mockumentaries, as it looks like a standard narrative film as opposed to a documentary, but if in fact the final cut that was released to theaters is comprised primarily of off-script dialogue and scene alterations that deviate entirely from the written and locked script, than how can it be considered good writing more so than brilliantly convincing improvisation from a visionary director? It simply can’t be considered scripted in the traditional sense that calls for writing awards.

Though, kudos to the brilliantly inventive cast and Russell’s inspired directing style.

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