It feels like it should be wrapping up. A watch check reveals forty-five minutes remain. The laughter is getting quieter with each hair joke. Thirty minutes later, at the film's apparent climax, a nearby viewer - engaged at the outset - has fallen asleep. Something isn't right. Everything we need is here: performances, prestige, period details, star power, humour, rampant stupidity, twists and turns aplenty - how did it get boring?
It looks great, it's funny, it showcases a fleet of impressive performers, the true story underneath (the ABSCAM scheme) is compelling, and the themes it brings to light are - as they say - ever relevant. (In particular this: that bullish ambition bordering on criminality equally fuels law enforcement and criminal trajectories.) The film does service to its fictionalised versions of the characters: conmen - whether enforcers, politicians, mobsters, lovers, husbands, wives or even actual conmen - have never been so vulnerable, nor so pathetic, as they are here. In aid of that, the film has the best hair narrative since Natalie Portman's arc in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. It's almost a epic poem of wardrobe contradictions. A mid-film phonecall intercutting close-ups of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) with Richie Dimasso (Bradley Cooper) is the apogee of that arc.
The hair narrative doesn't quite resolve. In answer to the opening indignity Dimasso inflicts on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), it feels as if the ending should have done more than ruin Dimasso's career, and gone the extra step to ruin his hair. (Possibly the mid-film visit to Dimasso's house deflated his image as far as it could go.)
There are more substantial rhythmic issues. A mid-film encounter with mob figure Victor Tellegio (Robert DeNiro) provides the greatest 'drawn breath' moment, when Tellegio makes an impromptu shift to Arabic language. The stakes never feel as high again as they do at that table, and Tellegio's proxy in the narrative from that point, Pete, is no substitute. Whatever the true pattern of events behind this film, and changes appear to have been considerable, the Tellegio encounter in its present form possibly should not have been as far from the end of the tale as it is. (If this was a script edit: condense the plot after the Tellegio encounter. Have Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) hurl her grenade about Irving and the IRS to Pete not in a subsequent rendezvous, but during her bar binge while the Tellegio encounter takes place. The fake sheik makes it past Tellegio, but Irving is picked up by Peter the very next morning.)
This raises a question: what is the tale? The Goodfellas-style storytelling frame makes it the story of a love made in heaven (Irving and Sydney's). They have chemistry, and share the ambition and aptitude to fleece the unwitting. Their love is rooted in a tension, as one of the lovers (Irving) is in a relationship (with Rosalyn). The love is challenged by the entrapment of the FBI (led by Dimassi), caught out doing the very thing they do well together. The dramatic question ultimately: what will it cost them to get out of this? Their relationship? Irving's relationship with his stepson? Since Irving will ultimately end up having to sacrifice neither of these, the screenplay sets up stakes around a third idea - the reputation of Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) so that Irving's success comes at a price. Leaving aside the issue of whether the real-life basis for Carmine Polito was as innocent as the film makes out, and whether it might not have been better to have Irving being hoodwinked in his own way by a politician (society's most legitimate confidence men), it's questionable whether the love was the right thing to dramatise here. It certainly adds pathos towards Prosser, Irving and Polito that seems at odds with the satirical tone the film hits at its strongest moments.
It could be the screenplay as Truby suggests, the consequence of a focus on character over plot, an incongruous genre fusion (love, memoir and black comedy), and an awkward use of storytellers (three of them), flashing back from the wrong beat. The focus on character over plot seems telling. It accounts for the amount of 'acting porn' in the film -- scenes that feature strong performances but essentially don't take the story forward. Films that pitch their tent around schemes of deception are among the most plot-heavy there are (Mamet's Heist or The Spanish Prisoner, Nolan's The Prestige). This film tilts its hand on a few key reveals - some macro, some micro - undercutting the surprise each has. It does this to dramatise the point of view of several characters in a given scene, giving the audience a bit of all sides of the equation. But omniscience makes for a clumsier dance between states of concealment and revelation than was necessary, and not enough of the developments in the film's last stretch are unanticipated when they come. There's the old suspense vs surprise debate (revisited recently by David Bordwell), to which there is no definitive answer. Sometimes it's better to foreshadow and engage the audience imagination. Other times it's better to blindside them. For me, and I suspect for others I saw the film with, the absence of surprise is part of the reason the film drags. (See particulars below in the list of suggested edits.)
I think the style of the film may be partly to blame as well. The film is often up close to its key players, close enough to see nuances on faces, pivoting around them in fluid movements, with a graininess of image -- a style that would be familiar to viewers of the director's previous films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. It would be interesting to see a lot of the film's scenes filmed from a locked-off point of view, wide angle, deep focus, slightly above or below character eye level. The suitcase camera motif feels underused, and in part because there'd be something embarrassing about seeing all this with a more unflinching gaze. The people would be less relatable, the satire stronger. It's a different direction than the one O Russell has chosen, but I suspect such a style choice would have better enabled him to shift the balance in favour of character over plot.
Some of these problems are not as easily approached in the editing room as they would have been in the screenplay and production phases. Had this story been filmed, or written, a different way, some of the below thoughts wouldn't be relevant, as the film would be a different beast. Nonetheless, given the chance to take American Hustle back to the editing room, what would we try?
Return to the Cutting Room (Note: Heavy Spoilers)
- Introduce the film in the present tense. Unimaginable as it might be to unpick the Goodfellas knot, the potential of the tale trumps the homage. Start the film in a real moment, one that gets to the heart of genuineness vs deception, rather than making the first Polito sting the framing device. The meeting between Rosenfeld and Prosser at the party is one possible entry point. (It would be nice to have Bale apply his hairpiece at the outset, but clothing continuity forbids it, and it will be a humorous reveal when the film gets to the Polito sting for those who haven't already spotted it.)
- Potentially keep the voiceover, but try to do without it. Quite what role voiceover would have in this version would be felt out on a case-by-case basis - if it worked, it's worth trying out the hairpiece line from Prosser. (But then consider the effect further down the film of the moment when Dimassi rips off Rosenfeld's hairpiece if her attitude to it hasn't been flagged.) If the voiceover was essential for exposition, and there was no way around it, then retain it. (My current resistance to it comes from it mostly filling in historical detail and a source of distance from the absurdities unfolding before camera rather than a source of levity.)
- Continue in the present tense. From the meeting of Prosser and Rosenfeld, cut to the first scene of Rosenfeld with Rosalyn as a point of contrast, introducing both Rosalyn and the idea of the son. Then show Rosenfeld and Prosser meeting in his office, and the invention of Lady Edith Greensley. Follow with an intercutting of the affair between them and the hooking of victims with their London loan scheme. Then Dimasso enters the picture, catching out Rosenfeld and Prosser. Proceed from there. Eventually we'll get to the scene that currently opens the film.
- Introduce Polito and Tellegio as entities in the film universe before they appear in the plot. Since Polito will now not be established at the film's opening, the film will approach him as the subject of an investigation. To help him appear significant, and a natural target for the investigation to drift to when it does, hear him on the radio in Rosenfeld's car early on, or have him on the TV in the background of Rosenfeld's house. Make his public side part of the film texture before seeing the man in person. Tellegio is trickier, since he's not a public figure. It does feel as though he (or the mob) needs at least one reference in the film's first half, given the significance he take on in the second. The power of the "Mister Wu device" (Orson Welles) should not be overlooked.
- Avoid having Prosser clearly spell out her intention to seduce Dimassi. The film tries to create drama for Prosser and Rosenfeld by having Prosser give an early indication of her intention to seduce Dimassi. I'd be interested to see what happens when the audience doesn't know that Prosser might be seducing Dimassi purely to entrap him. Rosenfeld will still get jealous, except his jealousy will raise fewer questions. Prosser will still seem torn, but we'll be wondering whether it's an act as opposed to knowing that it probably is. Dimassi will still get hooked, but now when he raises the question of her sincerity, we'll wonder along with him. Sacrifice a bit of omniscience for a bit of plot. It will all come out in the 'we got to get over on these guys' conversation anyway. A smart audience will see the reveal coming that Sydney is conning Dimassi, and they'll appreciate the fact that the film gave greater room for their imagination.
- Save the Polito sting for its chronological position within the plot. One of my issues with the film is that the first major conning experienced after we've got up to speed with the story is the evening with Tellegio, from whence the stakes diminish. I think the experience curve might rise a bit more naturally to the Tellegio encounter if they've had another sting along the way. This is a nice double experiment that emerges from starting in 'the present'.
- Delay Rosenfeld's guilt over Polito's involvement. If Rosenfeld is to face a moral challenge about the scheme, then Polito is the natural focal point for those feelings given the material in the film. But as with a couple of other arcs, the idea sprouts too early. From memory, foundations are laid down around the time the dinner between the Polito and Rosenfeld couples. Better to let the guilt about Polito creep in over the film's second half, making it even more of a by-product of Rosenfeld's self-preservation. All those shots of Rosenfeld viewing Polito's apparent sincerity feed the idea. When the reckoning comes - Rosenfeld's last conversation with Polito - the audience will have had less than an hour of concrete anticipation. (Again, save ideas for the freshness they'll bring later.)
- Don't announce Rosalyn as the weak point before she becomes it. Immediately prior to Rosalyn's lunch with Pete (Tellegio's enforcer), Sydney and Irving effectively mark her as their Achilles heel. (The film then cuts to her, and while you'd think there'd be a laugh on that cut, there wasn't in my screening.) This primes us to expect a slip from Rosalyn in the following scene, and she fulfils the expectation. There's no real surprise to it or suspense about it. We're told something will happen. It happens. Cut out the remark from Sydney/Irving in the previous scene, and Rosalyn's slip will have the quality of surprise. (She'll also be a more active agent if her action isn't predicted by others.)
- A bit more of a macro-change. The suggested script edit above, of having Rosalyn give the game away due to her drunkenness during the Tellegio encounter, can't be achieved on the basis of current footage. But one could find the pairing of shots of Rosalyn and Pete in that bar that plant the seeds of Pete's suspicion. The next day, a car pulls up and Rosenfeld is forced into it. This loses some good material, but it is the part of the film where it feels the stakes should be accelerating, and that is one way to achieve it. (I'd have to see the film a second time to make another suggestion, but another thought is pretty much going straight to the Rosalyn-Pete lunch after the Tellegio encounter.)
- Don't let the cat out of the bag that Sydney and Irving are going to outwit the mob and the FBI. If there's a common thread to the suggestions here, it's that the film hints at its destinations too early. I personally knew that Dimassi was being played when he visited the offices of Tellegio's lawyer, because the film had told me that Sydney and Irving were going to try something, and their strategy in the scene was clear. I would have rather been in Dimassi's shoes for that scene, falling for the con. (Maybe a good deal of the audience is, but if so they'll miss nothing but accommodating the audience who got ahead of things.) How do we achieve that point of view shift? Look again at the conversation between Sydney and Irving from which Adams' best line comes: "We got to get over on these guys. That is what we have to do." That was the bit that told me they were about to pull something.
- Delay the final Rosenfeld-Polito encounter until after the humiliation of Dimassi in front of Amado. Here we're looking for the right way to leave the story. Rosenfeld has taken care of himself, now he will try to take care of his conscience and take the news of the reduced sentence to Polito. This saves the gravest consequence for the end, which could be tonally too heavy, but worth a try. If it was too heavy, give a bit of distance to those consequences through a potential pickup. Stay in the car with Prosser as Rosenfeld goes into Polito's house. (Maybe she can even hear Polito being interviewed on the radio about an unrelated matter.) She sees Irving angrily ejected some time later, with Polito's yelling overheard.
- Don't have Rosenfeld make Polito's reduced sentence a condition for returning the money. This could undercut what we're trying to achieve with the above point, but it could add to the guilt Rosenfeld feels about Polito if he can't do anything to protect him. He is ultimately trying to save himself.
- End in the present. Mirroring the adjusted start, this version of the film may need to end with the right beat between Prosser and Rosenfeld, rather than the happily-ever-after montage set to voiceover. (This doesn't rule out Rosalyn's final appearance with Pete, a scene that's necessary to say what's happening to the son.)
These are all experiments in shifting dramatic pressure, changing the way the audience experiences the story. Assuming successful execution, each would have ripple effects through the film. Some elements will work better, others will probably cease to work in their present form. However given the quality of the elements that work in American Hustle, I'd be surprised if a little restructuring didn't result in a film that could connect with all of its audiences: those that already seem to love it, and those who fell asleep by the climactic reel.