The ‘American Hustle’ Backlash and Why We Expect Too Much From Best Picture Nominees


In October of 2012, Warner Brothers released Argo, Ben Affleck’s highly fictionalized and highly entertaining account of the extraction of several Americans from Tehran in 1979. It was greeted with solid box office and enthusiastic reviews, and everyone seemed to agree that it was a well-executed and engaging period drama/caper. But a funny thing happened as 2012 became 2013 and Argo started accumulating year-end accolades: a chorus of Hey, hold on nows slowly formed, and continued to crescendo as it racked up seven Oscar nominations, became the Best Picture frontrunner, and won that prize. Suddenly, Argo wasn’t worthy of such praise; the agreeable little movie that everyone liked back in the fall had miraculously become terrible.

To be clear, no changes were made to the film itself; it’s not like Affleck went back in and recut it, Lucas-style. But because it received praise and awards that were perceived as disproportionate to the film itself, the film’s reputation had to be downgraded. The whole thing was bizarre — and it’s happening again this year with American Hustle, a perfectly acceptable Best Picture nominee that is knee-deep in the process of being Argo-ed.

Let’s get this part out of the way first: Your film editor has no particular dog in this hunt. I found American Hustle an enjoyable enterprise, a corker of an entertainment with some chewy thematic explorations of deception and self-deception, but it is far from my favorite of the Best Picture nominees (I wouldn’t even put it among the year’s best films). But I don’t have some egregious objection to its placement among those nominations — if, for no other reason, out of resistance to the notion that the Academy Awards are some kind of be-all, end-all barometer of the year’s finest films.

We’ll return to that. But it’s important to note that, contrary to Argo, American Hustle’s backlash began at “go,” when it was crowned the year’s best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle before it was even released. Never mind that we’re talking about an organization that includes Rex Reed and (until recently) Armond White among its members; this achievement, coupled with the Oscar-friendly cast and director and December release date, marked American Hustle as Academy Award Bait, and that’s the prism through which a healthy percentage of its viewers are watching it.

And that’s the framework through which most of its detractors are rejecting it. Look, I know there are plenty of people whose dislike of the film is borne out of nothing more than simple dissatisfaction with the style or the storytelling; that’s a legitimate, and perhaps understandable, response. But the vast majority of Hustle-haters seem less driven by a dislike for the film than for the praise it’s received. It’s not that Hustle is a bad movie, it seems — it’s that it’s not a great movie, or (to put it more precisely), not a Great Movie, the Kind of Movie That’s Supposed to Win Oscars.

Which is the problem with this line of thinking: It has nothing to do with the movie, and everything to do with the viewer. This is not to say that it is possible, or even desirable, to view a film (or a book, or an album, or any work of art, really) in a vacuum; we all bring in our own preconceived notions, prejudices, histories, and personal preferences. But it’s not fair to reassess a fine motion picture as some sort of offensive failure simply because some other people liked it more than you did — particularly when it’s an organization as artistically corrupt and consistently misguided as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Every year, when Oscar time comes, we marvel at the mistakes in the nominations, relive the countless unworthy nominees and winners, and marvel at the great actors and directors the AMPAS summarily ignored. The number of occasions on which the Oscar for Best Picture actually went to the year’s best picture are laughably miniscule (I count about once a decade), yet the concluding prize of a back-slapping, self-congratulatory fashion show is somehow still seen as a sort of sacred totem that must only be bestowed upon the worthiest of film art, and thus must not be sullied by the light-entertainment likes of Argo and American Hustle. (Slate’s Willa Paskin acknowledges this discrepancy early in her recent anti-Hustle manifesto, and then goes ahead and tumbles right into it anyway, proclaiming Hustle “way too messy and lopsided and charmed with itself to deserve to be identified, even for a night, as the greatest movie in all the land,” mere breaths after acknowledging that no one actually thinks that.)

So what is Best Picture material, then? Year after year, the nominations are dominated by Anglophilic costume dramas like The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love, and The English Patient; solemn biopics like A Beautiful Mind, Ray, and The Aviator; literary adaptations like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Atonement, and The Cider House Rules; and bloated epics like Gladiator, Braveheart, and Master and Commander. These are Oscar Movies™, impeccably designed and serious-minded, thoroughbred racehorses with flawless pedigrees and award-winning jockeys. And much of the time, they’re clumsy and ham-handed, or (even worse) dull as toast. The elements of the boilerplate Oscar contender are widely acknowledged (the object of satire, even), but the bizarre common wisdom holds that these are the kinds of movies that should be in the running, and no others.

Meanwhile, every year we hear about the light comedies and romantic dramas that get left out the Best Picture race (this year’s class includes Before Midnight, Enough Said, and Frances Ha), and watch as the occasional fizzy pop confection that pushes its way onto the list gets sneered at and dismissed for the crime of not being serious enough — as though a good time at the movies is totally incompatible with the big prize. But that prize is based on countless factors: the intensity of its “campaign,” the funds available to spend on said campaign, the “momentum” of the season, even the likability of those involved.

American Hustle may very well win the Oscar — 12 Years a Slave (my pick) is unquestionably a difficult sit and Gravity is weirdly being pigeonholed as a purely technical achievement, while Hustle is the same kind of attractively agreeable middle-of-the-road pick that Argo was, from a director beloved by actors (who make up the Academy’s largest voting block). American Hustle’s nomination and possible win are not a travesty, and they don’t make it a terrible film. It’s merely one more blip in the often inexplicable history of the Oscar, and if the film’s recognition helps broaden the narrow confines of Best Picture consideration, then more power to it.