Oscar Diary #6: “American Hustle” Premieres: The Game Begins for David O. Russell

www.indiewire.com

Jennifer Lawrence slinks into the Oscar race in “American Hustle”

American Hustle endured its first preview screening in L.A. this past Sunday. Oprah is busy extending every root of her titanic media tree into the depths of the industry for The Butler‘s campaign. Jennifer Lawrence fidgets in her seat, adorably (ok, “accidentally”) spilling mints all over herself at a panel for Catching Fire.

The minute–albeit entirely calculated–nuances of awards season power plays are sprouting here and there, and it’s time to start paying close attention.

Initial reaction to David O. Russell’s third installment in a reinvention series of sorts (the first two films being The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) seems to be tipping slightly north of average. Although a reviews embargo is in effect until December 4th, Oscar bloggers and film critics alike have taken to Twitter to post first-round comments, and it seems that American Hustle is poised to shake up the pre-Oscars race in at least two major categories.

The film is likely to receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay by default (O. Russell finished the film in a crazy-fast amount of time. Writers love to reward quick work, as I assume it motivates them), though most who’ve seen the film praised Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, indicating that she’s a true show-stealer in an otherwise simple picture.

With SAG ballots in the mail last week, Jennifer Lawrence seems poised for another headline year. Recognition for American Hustle in the supporting categories at a few major awards shows seems likely for her. Though American Hustle lacks backing from the Weinsteins (they’ve got a fantastic track record for actors, given that they were able to get Silver Linings Playbook nominated in each acting category last year), Lawrence is riding high on the trails of her colossal star ascending at breakneck speed. She’s someone who appeals to the broad membership of the SAG voting base (about 100,000 strong) and the narrower nominating sect (around 2,200 members), and an ace interviewee. Her likeability is universal, and she connects with all demographics thanks to a relatable personality and legitimate acting prowess, who knows when to be funny, but doesn’t let her red-carpet persona precede her talent (think of her as a much more respectable Robert Benigni).

Hustle represents an interesting spice thrown into the pre-Oscar sauce. While, of the past four Oscar years, it marks the third within which David O. Russell has released a legitimate contender, it’s no secret that the tone of Russell’s work has shifted. That’s not to say it has gotten worse. Silver Linings Playbook is an enjoyable (if unchallenging) film entirely worthy of the praise it received last year. I’ve yet to see The Fighter, so I can’t speak on it, but I do know that even on the basis of subject matter it represents a vast departure from Russell’s early work. I’m not alone fearing the loss of the days of the intrepid, ruthless spirit who brought us the oddity of a vision that was I Heart Huckabees in favor of Oscar-friendly fare.

Jeremy Smith of Aint It Cool News tweeted an interesting thought yesterday:

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It’s an interesting point in a time where so many forget what Oscar season truly is. It’s all just a game–no different than football, hockey, or the Miss America pageant–and Russell is a star player on the road to securing a legacy, one which can be as fruitful as he wants it to be (without limits) if his name is cemented with Oscar gold.

If he is playing the game, Russell never seems to have the upper hand. His films have managed a minor dent in the Best Picture race  at best (Silver Linings Playbook had the best shot at the title, thanks to its all-encompassing gravitational pull of actor appeal and love from the general audience audience), though his contemporary regard within the industry only approaches that of an auteur without fully realizing it. Silver Linings Playbook and I Heart Huckabees are entirely different films within which I can find almost no semblance of a directorial hand’s similar strokes. Huckabees is cold, philosophical, and existentially perplexing, whereas Silver Linings Playbook forces us into the minds of its characters, exploring their pathos, and functioning to make their feelings ours. One is a philosophical monologue, and the other is a town hall of emotions.

It’ll be interesting to see how American Hustle fits into Russell’s legacy. His reputation was tainted after a few on-set outbursts during the filming of I Heart Huckabees, and his style underwent a drastic change over the course of the 6 years between that film and The Fighter. 14 Oscar nominations after I Heart Huckabees, though, his recent work shows that he’s willing to play the game we all know so well. Does this make him an inferior artist? Absolutely not. The game is tense and the game calls for strategic plays.

An artist who knows how to conform his art while still pouring himself into his work (he writes his screenplays, directs with passion, and produces a quality product) deserves respectable praise, but what exactly is it that Russell isn’t doing to push himself over the edge? He aligns himself with master marketers and campaign veterans (the Weinsteins) and buzzy stars with real talent (Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams) to create a spectacle of near-genius instead of a weight display of heavy greatness.

His films are consumable without entirely sacrificing complexity. They’re provocative enough for his built-in audience to enjoy, but accessible enough to be sold to the masses. He’s helming masterworks of perfectly-blended commercial cinema, but that’s also his problem. His films don’t push hard enough in either direction, and it may be a while before he gets the recognition he deserves.

At this point, it seems entirely unlikely that American Hustle can steal the thunder away from 1Years a Slave or even Gravity, for that matter. Both have hyper-strong, agenda-pushing awards narratives pushing them to the forefront of the discussion (black filmmakers and diversifying the Oscars, women once again become a box-office force), and Russell’s work again seems destined to only reap the benefits of what love is leftover from the headliners.

His art isn’t compromised if he stands behind it, and as long as people love it, he has found a way to cement a firm grasp on the ever-elusive Oscar machine. He’ll have to learn to prove himself to the DGA if he wants to go all the way to Oscar (though the new voting dates don’t allow Oscar voters to use the DGA nominations as a basis for their own voting). His time might not be with American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook, but somewhere down the line his credibility-building run as an Oscar darling will pay off with a legacy win bound to make I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings shine a hell of a lot brighter in retrospect than they would have if their creator had remained a creative alien to the mainstream.

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