"American Hustle" is heavily favored to take home Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. With 10 nominations, tons of critical support, and the healthiest box office of any other nominee (minus "Gravity"), David O. Russell's crime "comedy" seems poised for easy glory. Heck, even my fellow writers here at Stage Buddy have sung the praises of "American Hustle", but I have remained unimpressed. My initial review was a tad harsh, but my opinion is still that "American Hustle" is an average crowd-pleaser at best that struggles mightily to impersonate a Martin Scorsese movie.
Then it occurred to me: If people want Scorsese, why not heap praise on the ACTUAL Scorsese movie of the year, "The Wolf Of Wall Street"? I loved the film, naming it my 8th favorite of year, while my fellow writers and many in the industry panned it. "Wolf" did get a healthy share of Oscar nominations as well, but it doesn't have anywhere near as much momentum and love as "Hustle". Then a second thought occurred to me: "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" are the same movie. Well, sort of. The only plot similarities are that there is crime involved, but that's it. The likeness comes from the style and tone of each film. When you really think about it, they truly were going for the same effect. So why does everyone like the way "Hustle" did it more than "Wolf"? I don't know, but here's why they should reconsider.
Nobody can make the claim that either of these films are low on energy. Each moves at a frantic rate, urging you to keep up with these excitable characters. But the love that people have for "Hustle's" energy is misplaced. Yes, the movie moves quickly, but in that energy it forgets something very important: pacing. "American Hustle" doesn't pace itself. It sprints from scene to scene, changing protagonists as easily as inhaling, and not stopping for anyone to exhale. It behaves like a sugar-addled child crazily trying to show off a bunch of new toys to a parent. He's got so much to show you, that he never takes the time to just sit and enjoy any single one. That's what Russell did with "American Hustle". He threw all of these excessively colorful characters on screen and then mercilessly sped through them without taking extended time to appreciate them.
Scorsese knows better. There is only one character at the heart of "Wolf", and that's the only toy he plays with the whole film. Jordan Belfort is his G.I. Joe. Sure he brings in a few other action figures to round out the story (Jonah Hill is Snake Eyes, obviously), but the movie remains about one clear individual. Because of this, Scorsese can move at any pace he wants because all that time will be time spent with Jordan. We learn a lot about him over the course of three hours (the movie is too long, that I admit), even though there aren't any slow, contemplative scenes to be found. You can be energetic without sacrificing character development. "Hustle" is all energy with no genuine characters.
Speaking of characters, neither film features anybody "nice" to root for. There's no problem there, but in the case of "Wolf", at least Jordan feels like a COMPLETE character. Everyone in "Hustle" is so hastily established and the perspective changes so frequently that you dislike the characters, then have no reason to care about them. You may not like Jordan, but at least you can take interest in examining why he's such a bad guy.
I'll be up front with you: going into both of these films, I had no idea that they were comedies. All the trailers for "Hustle" seemed pretty straightforward, and "Wolf" seemed like it could be good for a few situational laughs but nothing more. Once I actually sat to watch "Hustle", I became awkwardly aware that I was supposed to be laughing at it. My brain tried to make the adjustment to enjoy the humor, but it didn't want to. Frankly, "American Hustle" wasn't funny enough to laugh at. Aside from Louis CK (who you could inject into a Holocaust documentary and he'd still make you laugh) and a few lines from Jennifer Lawrence, what was funny about it? Were we supposed to find Bradley Cooper's volatile mood swings amusing? Those came off as groaningly desperate attempts to draw laughs from wacky behavior akin to an Adam Sandler comedy. Were we supposed to laugh at Christian Bale's lines because he said them while fat? All the comedic moments of "Hustle" seemed deliberately placed, and that's not what comedy should be. Comedy should feel natural and authentic to the situation. Nothing in "American Hustle" felt authentic.
"The Wolf Of Wall Street", on the other hand, is flush with natural comedy. Jordan and his associates are larger than life, just like the ensemble of "Hustle", but because Scorsese implemented a first person narrative style early on, the film became self-aware. With that self-awareness came the feeling of being comfortable to laugh. Had this been a straight narrative, one would cringe at Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill getting into a quaalude fight. But because the movie stepped back and said, "yes, we know how ridiculous this is, let me laugh at it with you", it felt like we were all in on the joke together. Most importantly, unlike "Hustle" which put all its eggs in the shoehorned-in-comedy basket, "Wolf" doesn't sacrifice it's seriousness to get a laugh. The aforementioned quaalude fight scene is at once one of the funniest and most shocking scenes in a film this year. It handles both tones - comedy and drama - without looking like it's fumbling between the two.
So why has "American Hustle" gotten all the love? Easy: sex. "American Hustle" hesitantly approaches sex while "The Wolf of Wall Street" dives headlong into it. You may be thinking that this is a narrow-minded excuse, using the most obviously controversial part of "Wolf" as a crutch for its lesser success. It may be a crutch, but it's correct. By being so sexually graphic, "Wolf" alienated a huge amount of audiences. Older age groups have widely balked at the film, and feminists have torn it apart for glorifying the lifestyles of the main characters. "American Hustle", on the other hand, is easy to swallow for all ages and sexes and more. It's over-the-top, silly, and features some of the hottest (in every sense of the word) actors working today. With "Wolf", everyone has such a hard time seeing past the sex and runtime that they aren't even considering the fact that it's doing the exact same thing as "Hustle", but better.