In an interview last winter with Mary Kaye Schilling of New York magazine, the director Steven Soderbergh, prompted by Schilling’s remark “You’ve never been a fan of film critics,” responded, “It’s what Dave Hickey said: It’s air guitar, ultimately. Was it helpful to read Pauline Kael’s work when I was growing up? Absolutely. For a teenager who was beginning to look at movies as something other than just entertainment, her reviews were really interesting. But at a certain point, it’s not useful anymore. I stopped reading reviews of my own films after Traffic, and I find it hard to read any critics now because they are just so easily fooled. From a directorial standpoint, you can’t throw one by me. I know if you know what you’re doing, and, ‘Wow, critics’—their reading of filmmaking is very superficial.”
Because Soderbergh and his work are well-liked by most critics, this verdict did not elicit the howls of derisive outrage that might have attended the exact same words had they been delivered by Michael Bay or Tyler Perry (not that they would have been). Sure, I detected a slight wounded whiff of “Dad’s just giving us the tough love” defensiveness from some younger colleagues in conversation, but that was about it. (I have no real dog in this non-fight, as Soderbergh pretty much closed The Iron Door on me after I panned The Good German in Premiere magazine back in 2006.*)
However, as if to provide the Q.E.D. to Soderbergh’s blanket condemnation of a “superficial” reading of filmmaking (a generalization I feel Soderbergh might revise were he to read Kent Jones on Paul Thomas Anderson, or on anything else), earlier this month the New York Film Critics’ Circle, once considered an august, deliberative, and not-really-pandering-to-mainstream-taste entity, awarded it Best Film award to American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell. American Hustle is a film that is very engaging in parts, and full of lively performances. Also a film that is incredibly sloppy and practically incoherent and not even close, by any objective or quasi-objective standard of directing or any other aspect of filmmaking, to being the best any-kind-of-movie released in 2013.
Some Dude on Twitter™ (not a member of the New York Film Critics’ Circle) recently opined that American Hustle was a "better Scorsese movie" than Scorsese’s own The Wolf of Wall Street. I don’t imagine this person will be the first to voice this opinion. It is an idiotic opinion, and it is based entirely on superficial readings of both films. (Because neither Hustle nor Wolf has yet opened [oh, wait, I see Hustle opens in "exclusive" engagements today], I’m going to try to keep my descriptions as spoiler-free as I can.)
American Hustle, directed by Russell from a script by himself and Eric Singer, is a two-hour-and-change, sort-of based-on-a-true-story picture ("Some of this actually happened," reads a title card at the beginning) about a con man and his partner in love and crime who get gathered up in a venal law man’s net and are compelled to set up "stings" with the federal agent in order to escape jail time themselves. Along the way various complications, dressed up in outer-borough and Jersey accents and 1970s fashion filigree, and including criss-crossed romantic entanglements, and the emergence of a criminal fish bigger than anyone in this scheme is comfortable trying to handle, take the double-dealing into some unusual areas. But Russell, who is nothing if not exuberant in his approach, also doesn’t really know what movie he wants to make. The narration, the hard-stressed period flourishes, and the milieu suggest, yes, Scorsese's Goodfellas, but Russell never pulls off that movie’s headlong (or breakneck) narrative momentum. Indeed, one suspects that he’s a little ashamed of the fact that his script has a very distinct plot, one that’s more in the tradition of The Sting than of any ostensibly realistic film (fact-based or not). And so, he presents the actual story of American Hustle through a series of sprawling scenes in which he lets his actors do their soulful/funny/weird things, while also giving his ‘70s song soundtrack something like free reign. Russell seems to deeply deplore the fact that karaoke had not caught on in America in the late ‘70s, or that he wasn’t able to configure the whole film as a musical, because he does love to let his actors sing, and when he can’t have them sing, he likes to cut to shots of them copping various attitudes while a particular song plays out, in full or something like it, over the soundtrack. There’s one scene about two-thirds of the way through the picture that should be a crucial one, in which the loose-cannon wife of Christian Bale’s character (played by Jennifer Lawrence) first lays eyes on her romantic rival (Amy Adams), at a big party during which Bale’s con artist and Bradley Cooper’s F.B.I. guy find out their entrapment of politician Jeremy Renner is leading them to the aforementioned bigger criminal fish, and a bigger risk. There’s a lot of character and plot material at stake, but Russell seems more interested in backlit slo-mo shots of Amy Adams being all open-mouthed luscious as Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” plays really loud. And she does look luscious, and you think you’re watching a music video.
"So what?" you may ask. All those things I cite—slow motion, pop-song soundtrack, digressiveness—are hallmarks of, yes, what people associate with Martin Scorsese movies. (It's clear too that Russell has also seen Boogie Nights. And Magnolia.) Except here’s the thing. In Scorsese’s films—in Goodfellas, and, yes, in The Wolf of Wall Street—these elements are put together with very distinct purpose, and they fuel the dynamic of the scene and what’s going on within it. (Think, in Goodfellas, of the overhead shot of Joe Pesci's Tommy hitting the floor at his “made man” ceremony, juxtaposed with De Niro smashing up the pay phone.) Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker are not dogmatic about “matching” (and as filmmakers heavily indebt to a New Wave that had a deeply ambivalent relationship to “invisible editing,” why should they be), but they’re damn serious about scene construction, and when it’s necessary, they cut in microbeats. Russell goes all over the place. As he waxes up an “everybody cons everybody” theme that isn’t really justified by the movie’s payoff, and drops empathetic notes about various of the characters’ debilitating or potentially debilitating instabilities, hints of Soderbergh’s own The Informant! emerge, but Russell isn’t nearly conceptually or technically accomplished enough to come within swinging distance of Soderbergh’s achievement. Still, the showy generosity of Russell’s vision will no doubt (if it hasn’t been already) earn praise for being “visual jazz.” Which it is not. Believe it or not, even the free-est of free jazz, as in actual music, has its rules. What Russell’s up to in American Hustle is just plain can’t-make-up-his-mind sprawl/bloat. It’s possible that Russell's movie is sloppy for arguably the best of reasons—he loves his actors, man!—but it’s still sloppy. In a movie that didn’t selectively hit their pleasure centers so squarely, the critics who are proclaiming this the best movie of the year would be deploring its incoherence.
But isn’t hitting the pleasure center all that matters? That was pretty high on Kael’s priorities, “entertainment” value or more-than-entertainment-value or not. Again, I did not find the experience of watching American Hustle to be pleasure-free. Indeed, I’ve never heard or seen the intro to Chicago Transit Authority’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” put to better use than in the Bale/Adams meet-cute scene. And Jennifer Lawrence really does do the trick, although Russell serves her ill with the movie’s second faux-karaoke scene. But while Lawrence is indeed a very good actress, the way the chattering classes fall all over her is getting kind of embarrassing; every profile of her reads like a wordy upmarket variation of a “Celebrities! They’re Just Like Us!” caption. She’s certainly a factor in the overpraising of American Hustle. But the real reason I believe Hustle is winning over so many is because it rather overtly flatters its audience. Its observations concerning corruption ultimately take a back seat to a cockeyed optimism and a consoling (conditional) tolerance of everyday venality. While the now-beloved Goodfellas, The Informant!, and The Wolf of Wall Street are all deeply pessimistic, distinctly un-ingratiating movies, American Hustle slobbers all over its viewers like an overeager puppy. (That’s something that 12 Years A Slave, reportedly the main challenger to Hustle during the NYFCC’s vote, certainly doesn’t do, either. Hmmm.) It likely sounds pat to say that the people going gaga over American Hustle have fallen for some kind of con, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
* This is a joke.