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Friday, February 28, 2014

American Hustle- By The Numbers

            I realize I never devoted any space to this last year, so for those of you who do not know me personally, allow me to be clear- I did not like Silver Linings Playbook.  At all.  I didn’t think it was bad.  Granted, the Indian Curry Racism Scene upon whom the entire third act is based was blindingly stupid, but for the most part, though bland and far too hammy, it was a fairly harmless movie when all was said and done.  What upset me was seeing it get 8 Oscar nominations over the ground-breaking and revolutionary Cloud Atlas.  THAT got me mad. 

            However, I accepted Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar as an apology for stiffing her for Winter’s Bone, still the girl’s best role to date, and I resolved to move on and not let the negative feelings over the movie’s absurdly overly-positive reception drag me down and spoil a new year of cinema.  In fact, prior to the announcement of the nominations, my biggest worry was the The Butler would manager to get nominations despite being its own special mess.    

            Then came American Hustle.  Once again, I found myself sitting down to watch a David Russell movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper that had garnered nearly endless critical praise, and had already beaten out several of my favorite films of the year for a number of major awards.  Once again, I tried to remove the hype from my mind, and just enjoy the film for what it was so as to form my own opinion.   And having now done that, I have come to one conclusion-

            I don’t get it.  I don’t get it AT ALL.  Why?  Why have I now seen two stunningly average and okay movies combine for an incomprehensible 18 Oscar nominations?  Why have Inside Llewyn Davis and Much Ado About Nothing joined Cloud Atlas in the ranks of genuine artistic accomplishments that will have next to no prestigious awards attached to their names?  WHY does everyone love this movie so much?  HOW can this be considered a serious contender for Best Picture?  How can anyone not be frustrated by Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly questionable career choices?  Just……WHY?  WHYYYYYYYY??????

            Okay, okay, sorry, give me a minute.  Need to breathe.  Okay. 

            The degree to which American Hustle- both the film itself AND its astonishing hype- frustrates, angers, and upsets me is a topic that I could spend hours on.  I will not do that, mostly because I’d rather not speed up the inevitable hair loss on my temple.  Instead, in order for my critique of the movie to be more pointed and focused, I am merely going to list all the categories for which this movie was nominated this year, and will list all the other movies, actors, and actresses, who were far more deserving of a valuable nomination spot.  I will not bother to go into greater detail than that, because I expect this movie to fade every bit as much as Silver Linings will eventually fade, so more effort on my part would just be a waste of my time. 

            Original Screenplay

More deserving film:

Inside Llewyn Davis

            This one is particularly aggravating to me as a writer, because the script, story, and plot of Hustle is a gargled, rambling, utterly incoherent mess.  I’ll give this to Silver Linings, it may have been bland as decades-old margarine, but at least it told a cohesive, tight story.  I never knew what was going on Hustle.  I watched this with my girlfriend, and every 15 minutes we found ourselves asking each other what happened, only to realize neither of us had a clue. 

            I am told they deliberately did a large chuck of the scenes on an ad-hoc, improvised basis, and it shows, because the movie absolutely gives up towards the end, throwing in the kind of stupid, way-out-of-left-field, totally nonsensical plot twist we’ve come to expect from the likes of Shyamalan.  Some have defended this to me by saying that the story isn’t the focus, the characters are.  That’s its own barrel of problems, but we’ll come to that presently.  All I can say to that is, “Okay, so the story and writing isn’t supposed to matter.  SO WHY NOMINATE IT FOR WRITING???”

            Production Design

More deserving films:

Inside Llewyn Davis
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Pacific Rim
To The Wonder
Wolf of Wall Street
Much Ado About Nothing

            I suppose the movie does at least feel like it’s in New Jersey, but given that it was FILMED there it would take an act of stupendous anti-talent that even David Russell doesn’t have to mess that one up.  I can think of nothing about the sets, lighting, or shot composition that deserves even the slightest bit of notice.  Seriously, what is memorable about the sets here?  How do they add to anything?  I do not know.  And I hope I am never capable of knowing. 

            Film Editing

More deserving films:

Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
To The Wonder
Much Ado About Nothing
            I suppose I should be grateful that, unlike Linings, this one did not get nominated for cinematography, but that doesn’t make the Editing nomination this got any less strange, especially given how the editing in Wolf is one of the key reasons why it’s such an emotional powerhouse, and should have been the one award that it waltzed away with.  Like with the screenplay, the editing of Hustle only serves to make the story even less coherent and its’ characters motivations even less easy to follow. 

            Costume Design

More deserving films:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Much Ado About Nothing

            This is actually one of the few categories where, yes, I can actually see the reason behind the nomination, because those 70’s area outfits are hilariously outlandish.  But is that really a compliment when the costumes are far, far more interesting that the actual people wearing them?  If I wanted all terribly unneeded style and no substance I’d go to a fashion show.  And The Hobbit had better costumes anyway.  Seriously, why all the Hobbit hate

            Best Directing

More deserving directors:

Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Spike Jonze (Her)
Joss Whedon (Much Ado About Nothing)
Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)

            Yes, it was a tight year for good directing.  All the more reason for Russell to be nowhere near this list for yet another lackluster job.  All the above films are far better products than Hustle, and are all the distinct works of smart and immensely talented and skilled directors.  Words that I used to use to describe Russell as well, but Lord knows where he’s heading if he can’t discover the same pool of ability that helped him crank out The Fighter

            Best Supporting Actress

More deserving actresses:

Amy Acker (Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing)
Léa Seydoux (Emma, Blue Is The Warmest Color)
Carrey Mulligan (Jean, Inside Llewyn Davis)
Amy Adams (Amy, Her)

            Oh hi Jennifer Lawrence.  Fancy seeing you here.  Again. 

            Look, to a certain extent, I can understand the hype over Jennifer.  Her lack of pretension is really great to see in a profession that usually takes itself waaaaaaay too seriously, and she is genuinely talented.  But guys, come one, we are pushing her to a level of sancitifed glorification that NO public figure, no matter how genuinely nice or skilled, comes down from without at least some scarring.  We need to stop pretending that every word that tumbles out of her mouth is some glorious new prophesy of New Age, Fixing-Everything Feminism.  We need to stop treating her like she’s the perfect answer to every problem with gender representation in Hollywood.  And, above all, we need to STOP praising her and handing her oodles of awards for doing roles that she’s not fit for and cannot pull off at this point in her career.  Other actresses just as talented have worked far harder and far longer just to get one statue.  She has done nothing, thus far, SO incredibly special as to merit earning two in a row before she can legally rent a car. 

            Please, Jennifer, darling, once production of the last Hunger Games movies is over, leave.  Go far away.  Take a two-year hiatus so everyone here can calm the hell down and wipe the froth off their faces.  Then feel free to come back and do whatever you want. 

            Best Supporting Actor

Alexis Denisof (Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing)
Will Forte (Woody, Nebraska)

           You know, this particular nomination, like with costumes, I have no problem with.  Alexis Denisof and Will Forte would have been better choices; Will's turn in a serious role was an immensely pleasant surprise, given that I grew up watching him on SNL.  However, I have to give Cooper credit for succeeding in being the only person on screen who looked like he was having fun with his role.  His character actually came across as a real person, an overly-eager puppy-dog of an FBI agent with a bit of a sadistic streak (and yes, the scene with the curlers did pull a laugh out through my disapproving lips).  Everyone else just looked like they desperately needed more fiber in their diet.  Carry on Bradley.  Carry on. 

            So that’s two nominations now that I’d give this movie.  Congratulations American Hustle, you are officially slightly better than Silver Linings Playbook

            Best Actress

More deserving actresses:

Scarlett Johansson (Samantha, Her)
Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle, Blue Is The Warmest Color)
Emma Thompson (P.L. Travers, Saving Mr. Banks)

            Screw everyone who says otherwise, voice-acting IS real acting, and Samantha is one of Scarlett’s best roles to date, and the girl already has a great track record (so why hasn’t she been gift-wrapped an Oscar too, HUH???).  Furthermore, out of all the performances I saw this year, no one gave it their all more than Exarchopoulos did for Blue.  Love it or hate it, the weight she brings to the role is overwhelming to witness.  And do I really need to provide anyone with a reason why Emma Thompson should be on this list?  

            Best Actor

More deserving actors:

Oscar Isaac (Llewyn, Inside Llewyn Davis)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Captain Phillips)
Robert Redford (The Man, All Is Lost)
Michael B. Jordan (Oscar, Fruitvale Station)
Joaquin Pheonix (Theodore “Best Name Ever” Twombly, Her)

            If you have seen ANY of the movies above, you should be as bewildered as I am that Christian Bale managed to slip into this category.  Yes, his character was amusing, but are we really going to set the bar that low for someone who’s already won an Oscar to get a nomination OVER lesser-known superstars who could use the career boost being nominated provides?  That is a fair argument for keeping Robert Redford and Tom Hanks from the list, but not Isaac or Jordan.  And while Pheonix has been nominated before, his haunting, haunting turn in Her is more than enough of an argument for him to have been the one actor to get a second straight nomination this year. 

            Bale, I love you, but this should not have been an awards year for you. 

            Best Picture

More deserving films:

Inside Llewyn Davis
Much Ado About Nothing
All Is Lost
Fruitvale Station

            American Hustle is an hour shorter than Wolf and Blue, and yet feels like it’s an hour longer than either of those marathons.  And when that happens, there is a problem with your movie.  There are some decent parts, even some great scenes (the best one, rather pathetically, brought by Robert De Niro giving as little effort as a man can possibly bring to a role), but none of them coalesce.  The fault of that lies in its many disparate parts, and the result is that the combination of everything- the writing, acting, directing, shooting, editing, and tone- is so garbled and contradictory that, while the film is certainly a spectacle, it’s not the kind of spectacle I’m comfortable seeing garner award after award after award.  It is not a bad movie.  Sometimes, it succeeds in being good.  But great?  Best of the year?  No.  No no no no no NO.  

            Well, there you have it.  American Hustle should not have been an awards juggernaut, plain and simple, simply because in over half the categories in was nominated in, there were at least 3 or 4 other movies with much better cases for a nomination. 

            Maybe it really is me.  Maybe I just don’t operate on the right wavelength.  But who knows?  Maybe next year’s Russell piece will change my mind.  I can see it now:

            It will be called Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence Wash David Russell’s Breakfast Dishes With A Rabid Dog Running Around Barking.  Bradley Cooper will be nominated for Best Actor, Bale for Best Supporting.  Jennifer will merely speak in broken Russian for the entire film, repeating the phrase “Vodka, da?” over and over, and will be nominating for Best Actress AND Best Supporting Actress (her character has bipolar disorder- the other personality will be called Simeona, and she will be a black South African woman with two heads who only speaks in Yiddish rhymes).  The rabid dog will have the only camera for filming strapped to its back the entire time, and will be nominated for Best Cinematography.  The script, consisting of 8 couplets on a single napkin, will get the Adapted Screenplay nomination.  Bradley Cooper will have a subplot wherein he makes a documentary short (which will, in and of itself, be nominated for said award) about his demented mother, whose acid trips will be nominated for Best Short Animated Film.  The Editing Team will consist of 5 apes wielding hammers, who will simply pound the cameras into a pulp.  They will, of course, be nominated too.  In the middle of the film, Bradley will wish a Rollie-Fingers moustache into existence, earning him the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  And at the very end, instead of a credit role, Jennifer Lawrence will merely open her mouth and emit a series of erratic dubstep beats, and the Oscars for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing will be presented to her on a gilded platter by the Academy president wearing a banana-leaf toga the very next day. 

            And we will laugh, and shout, and sing, and rejoice.  And we shall repeat, over and over and over again, “All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell.” 

            All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell. 

            All hail the Russell. 

            All hail the Russell. 

-Noah Franc 

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