Sunday, February 23, 2014

Best of 2013 #1, Part 1: The Most Remarkable Thing About American Hustle

There hasn’t been a lot of love for this movie in the comments, so I suspect that I’ll get some blowback on this one, but what can I say, I loved it! At the end of the week, we’ll get to what I loved about the finished movie, but first let’s devote most of this week to the most remarkable thing about this movie: how much better it was that the repugnant spec script that it was based on.

In my “How to Give a Note” series, I mentioned that Hollywood went absolutely crazy for a certain type of script for a while, marked by the following qualities:
  • Omnipresent misanthropy.
  • Squishy, bizarre violence.
  • Fanatical levels of profanity, in both word and deed, preferably including an unproducible title (in this case “American Bullshit”) which makes the script-reader feel like an outlaw just for recommending it.
  • Most importantly, it doesn’t once ask the reader to care. The characters are all strutting roosters who cockfight each other until one comes out on top.
It’s not hard to figure out why these scripts became so popular, when you consider the economics of the script-reading profession. It’s one thing to ask somebody to care when they’re sitting in a darkened theatre, with heartfelt performances, sumptuous cinematography and sweeping music, but when the poor script-readers are quickly flipping through a pile of paper, then the last thing they want to read is some ham-handed attempt to suck into moments of vulnerability, or earnestness, or, worst of all, poignancy, sitting there naked on the page, unenhanced by any of those things.

Readers would be embarrassed to have to tell their bosses, “You should buy this because it touched something inside me.” Instead, they want to say, “Finally, boss, we got a script without any of those old clichés!” They want wall-to-wall “Holy Crap!” moments. They want “too-cool-for-school”.

So “American Bullshit” hit the market, and made the Black List (an annual list of which scripts the readers liked the most in the previous year), and sold for big bucks, and started to attract some attention from stars…but then something amazing happened. David O. Russell, one of our very-best writer-directors, got hold of it, saw some slight merit buried deep beneath all that attitude, and totally rewrote it from the ground up, reconceiving every scene and writing entirely new dialogue. The result was American Hustle, which became, against all odds, the best movie of a very good year.

So now we arrive at the great irony: For all the reasons I listed above, I don’t think Russell’s American Hustle screenplay would have ever sold as a spec script. The only way to get movies like this into the pipeline is to start with the script-reader-friendly version, then bring in a writer-director with enough talent, vision and clout to transform it into something heartfelt and meaningful.

“American Bullshit” exemplifies the current screenplay market: showing why these scripts are so bad and also why they sell, so I think it might be interesting to take a closer look at it for the next three days, until we finally arrive at American Hustle and how it turned this lump of lead into gold…


j.s. said...

Haven't read the original spec. And I do get that this list is of your favorite movies, which don't all necessarily suceed on the merits of their perfect scripts with wall-to-wall writing lessons. But if anything, the script for the finished film of AMERICAN HUSTLE is one of the single weakest of all the big end of year releases. I'm kind of aghast at this choice.

From what I hear, even David O. Russell himself thought very little of his script. He kept telling people it would change while he was rewriting it again and again through pre-production. He didn't seem to care that much about the story as such while he was shooting. And he improvised endlessly, coming up with exponential variations of what happens and how it plays tonally throughout the entire film. There's a reason the film has three editors.

The best things about AMERICAN HUSTLE are its breezy air of fun, its Altmanesque waywardness and indulgence of the actors. There are some really funny moments of topnotch goofing and scenery chewing.

That said, it's nowhere near Altman's best work and not even close to David O. Russell's either. And it hardly earns the right to riff of (or should I say rip off) Scorsese's stylistic tics.

You talk about how the original spec, in taking itself way too seriously, has a kind of nihilistic disdain for all of its characters that makes it impossible to care about them. I'd argue that the rewrite errs in the opposite direction by taking its characters and narrative so unseriously that we can't care either. Since David O. Russell himself evoked GOODFELLAS, I think it's fair to say that I felt more connected to and more empathy for some of the most minor characters in that film the very first time I saw it than I did to any of the leads in AMERICAN HUSTLE.

You might have had a great time watching this film once, but I sincerely doubt you'll be watching it again anytime soon. Or even later for that matter -- there just isn't enough there there for it live on in our collective film history. I'd wager that even the lost unreleased cut of NAILED is more worthy of preservation.

By the way, I forget if you've seen David O. Russell's best (and best written film) I HEART HUCKABEES, wherein he does the impossible and makes a genuinely funny screwball comedy about the same sorts of subtle internal Rites of Passage conflict happening in films like HER and 12 YEARS A SLAVE that also happens to be an extremely astute and accessible primer on the major issues in existentialism and the essential nature of Buddhism.

Anyway, hope you'll eventually get around to seeing some of the better 2013 releases you missed, especially those with good storytelling like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and PRISONERS. I think you ought to see WOLF OF WALL STREET too, for how Scorsese handles territory you've written in yourself.

J.A. said...

Oh, man… I'm on record saying I think this film was extremely mediocre. The tone was wildly inconsistent, I thought the performances, even Bale's, were bad… Amy Adams was possibly at her worst, and I usually love her. It seemed like a director indulging his actors WAY too much, and in turn getting performances that were all over the map... The script seemed to be mining second-rate GOODFELLA'S territory…

I'll try to keep an open mind as I read your support of the film, but are you absolutely sure you're not just favorably comparing an OK film to a terrible old script?

I gotta say, I didn't particularly like CAPTAIN PHILIPS though, either, j.s. It was fine, but wouldn't you agree that A HIJACKING was a more interesting, better film? Not that it's an either/or situation, but CAPTAIN PHILLIPS seemed… I don't know… I wasn't surprised much. And I won't get into specifics since Matt hasn't seen it, but I lost faith in the story halfway through, when I stopped believing that anyone would continue to fall for Tom Hank's lies.

Matt Bird said...

- Surly you guessed by this point that this was coming!
- I'm pretty sure I will love this movie upon subsequent viewings.
- I hadn't thought of Altman, but I agree that that's a good comparison.

- Nope, I traced down and read the script after loving the movie, and my already-great appreciation skyrocketed.

Paul Clarke said...

I didn't mind it, but didn't love it. The problem for me was that it veered too far away from Christian Bale's character through the middle part. He was the protag, without him we were too focused on Bradley Copper who should have been a side-kick at best.

Also, for a film about a talented con-man there seemed to be very little conning going on. Where were the twists and turns?

Like JS said, it felt like a poor mans Scorcese. Watch Wolf of Wall Street for the real thing. Leo's character is the focal point from start to finish.

Billy said...


I have read your blog every day for many months now; I think you are absolutely amazing at what you do and your thoughts inspire me repeatedly in my own writing ideas. I recommend this spot to everyone I know who is writing and thus far everyone of all kinds has gone out of their way to thank me. And even though I like to think of myself as at least reasonably intelligent and articulate, and feel like I should comment, I hypocritically never do, because I have had a lot going on in my life recently and what could I say that could possibly top your thorough posts?

But I'm ending that today. I have to back you up on this one. "American Hustle" is a fantastic - and outstandingly written - film in a year that has been overflowing with them. All of the universal building blocks of storytelling - plot, character, style, and theme - are integrated so seamlessly and executed on such a dazzling level it is almost impossible to know where to begin. Some things I loved particularly. I loved how the screwball comedy-type dialogue is so whip-smart and fast it gave me a pulse-racing high most action movies can't do, even when (or often because) the characters are willfully using it as their version of smoke and mirrors. I loved how everyone is in some way deceiving everyone else, and yet because their characters are so clear and fleshed out you understand why eveveryone does what they do and just hold your breath and watch it unfold, rather than quickly choosing sides and letting the runtime run out. I loved how all of this was of a piece of the recurring ideas of deception to survive and how it is shown that such manipultions that people use on smaller levels everyday (or grand levels, as our characters do) always leave victims, and how the opposite effect - working to understand those you care for - can give you second chances. And when the plot reaches the end of its fiendishly clever zigzaggs and reveals the emotion it has been working toward the whole time...just fabulous stuff. And when you add a cast of four movie stars all giving electric performances, a director with a scintillationg knack for balancing chaos and control,, and loads of period style, you get something with so many memorable moments and details that I will definitely be watching it again in a few months time.

The following should not reflect on the previous commenters, whose discussions I love reading and usually agree with. Bt I feel like this is one of those films that the ones who don't care for it just don't - and I usually hate it when people say this but here goes - "get" it. Or they don't give it a chance because it is too Hollywood and geared toward entertainment to fit into what they consider art, so they disregard it and claim it is messy or empty when it is nothing of the kind. Or since it is popular it is now cool to hate and push back on it. I don't know. Differences of opinion make the world go rouynd, but I clearly saw a different film. Just remember Matt, this film receives a 93 on Rotten Tomatoes, a 90 on Metacritic with 17 perfect scores, is nominated for 10 Oscars, and millions of people have flocked so see and subsequently recommended it, so you are by no means in the minority on this one. To be clear, I do think this is not as great a film as "Twelve Years a Slave", "Gravity", or "Her", but the first two I consider bona fide pantheon-level masterpieces and the third pretty close, and in a year not boasting such a shocking amount of riches, "American Hustle" would definitely be my pick of the year.
You know what? I am going to backtrack and post (less epic length) comments to your other recent posts. You deserve it. I can not wait to see what you have for us tomorrow.


j.s. said...

Further to Paul's two points:

1) I was kind of digging the veer away from the protagonist, even thinking it might all be part of some grand design, perhaps even one with thematic implications. Like what if David O. Russell is brilliantly utilizing the multi-focal ensemble narrative approach Altman pioneered to suggest something like this: "In a world where every character imagines him or herself to be the major player/protagonist, the truth is they're all just bit players, comic relief if they're lucky." But, nope, it just petered out like everything else about this fun to make (sometimes fun to watch) but not very well-constructed movie.

2) Likewise with all the con stuff. Once again, Altman is the model. Once you've seen a few of his films you know that he won't be engaging genre expectations or delivering the goods in any way you've seen before. In MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, for instance, you're not going to get any of that conventional Western stuff, or if you do it will be glancingly at best and the focus will be elsewhere. I thought that's where David O. Russell was going with the con elements of his plot. But, no! He brought all that back near the end, stopped his movie cold and turned all the lights and the cameras on the mechanics of a con that wasn't all that impressive, impactful or coherent.

Vis-a-vis Matt's year end lists, this feels like THE MASTER all over again. Here's the work of a talented writer-director, usually a solid storyteller, but who for this one project decided to downgrade the script or ignore it altogether and see what else he could come up with playing around with his brilliant actors. Which, for me, seems like it was more fun to do than to watch.

Unknown said...

It's interesting this diversity of some people's opinion... While I agree overall with your top movie choices the order does puzzle me a bit... What makes American hustle better than 12 years as slave???? The struggle a film goes through to be made shouldn't matter at all!!! The only thing that should matter is the finished results of the film. In other words if a film is a breeze to make but excellent on every level than it's an excellent film; similarly if a film is ok but a nightmare to make that film is still just ok. A film is not like life in that it is based solely on results and NOT effort!!! Some actors "act sooo hard" and than others barely seem to act at all. But we reward the affect not the effort... Allot of questions have arisen in my mind... Maybe you just started on the wrong foot for this article, it's seems like an upward slope you're headed for by beginning a post series saying a movie is good because it overcame a bad script...

Matt Bird said...

Billy - Glad you're enjoying the blog, I'll keep an eye out for older comments.

Lawrence - I agree that it feels ridiculous to have 12 YEARS on a list like this and not have it at number one, simply because of the magnitude of its achievement, but I balked at putting it there because of the two frustrations I listed last week.

And I agree that the focus of this post seems to be giving the wrong impression: The deviations from the script are not the root of my love for this movie, nor the main reason, it's just an interesting angle that I thought I'd spend this week exploring because this is (mostly) a screenwriting blog.

Dan McCoy said...

Good God do I agree with J.S.