If the Academy gave out Oscars for the Most Aptly Titled Picture of the Year, David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” would be a shoo-in. The flashy Carter-era caper is a mediocre movie by almost every measure, and yet it’s easy to see how Academy voters could be -- and apparently were -- seduced by its good-looking ensemble, over-the-top costumes, peppy score and abundance of pastel-colored gas guzzlers. Add to that the fact that it comes from one of the buzziest, albeit overrated, directors in Hollywood, and throw in an amped-up “For Your Consideration” campaign for good measure.
The end result is debatable, inasmuch as all sound critical assessments have their counterarguments, but Academy members apparently drank enough Kool-Aid in this case to honor Russell’s effort with an inexplicable 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Whether or not it beats out its fellow front-runners -- Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” -- depends largely on the mood of the organization’s roughly 6,000 voters when the final votes are cast. We know from recent experience (2011’s “The Artist,” for instance) that the Old Guard has been pining for Hollywood’s glory days, and while “Gravity” is set in outer space, its VFX prowess and big-name star power in many ways best encapsulate the cinematic grandiosity of the movies of yore. In contrast, McQueen’s powerful historical epic is a beautifully directed and flawlessly acted work, but the story of a free Upstate New Yorker who is kidnapped and sold into the vicious confines of antebellum slavery doesn’t leave one feeling particularly warm and fuzzy. That’s not a deal-breaker for the Academy, of course, but a look at the Best Picture winners over at least the last two decades reveals an undeniable proclivity for feel-good fare.
Which brings us to last year’s winner, Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” The film beat out far more compelling contenders, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” but unlike those films, Affleck’s enjoyably taut political thriller wasn’t bogged down by too much controversy or profanity. The Academy likes its tales airy, and it often votes accordingly. Ostensibly, “American Hustle” is in the same situation. Like “Argo,” it is a mostly pleasant 1970s-set ensemble piece, centering on a ripped-from-the-headlines story and polished off with a few fine performances and some crackling improvised dialogue. But “Argo” is a much better picture. And while it may be a stretch to call Affleck a much better director than Russell, who has done terrific work in the past, it’s hard not to imagine the movie that “American Hustle” could’ve been in the hands of a more skilled artisan -- or at least one better suited to handle the delicacies of period nuance.
Granted, the 1970s are a difficult era to recreate. One could forgive seeing the Bergdorf Goodman men’s store across the street from the Plaza Hotel -- despite the fact that it didn’t exist there until 1990 -- if the wigs and costumes didn’t come off like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. And even those would be passable had Russell given us a reasonably paced narrative and a more centered emotional core. Instead we get ham-fisted plot points and derivative gangster piety, none of which is helped by the obligatory but injudicious addition of Jennifer Lawrence, who is miscast as the restless housewife Rosalyn. Other performances -- particularly those of Christian Bale and Amy Adams -- save the film from its multitude of shortcomings, and in the end “American Hustle” is an entertaining movie. But it is no Best Picture.
This is not to say that the Academy won’t vote for it anyway. The truth is, it has a pretty good chance. There are far better choices among this year’s nominees, but Academy voters already have a lengthy track record of weighing sheer quality against a mishmash of politics, popularity and whoever’s turn it happens to be. More often than not, the film that really deserves to win gets lost in the ether of Oscar beadledom. That might be the biggest American hustle of all.