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American Hustle and the Art of the Homage

Photo: Annapurna Productions and Warner Bros

Even many of its admirers have brought up the G word when discussing David O. Russell’s American Hustle. That word, of course, is Goodfellas, the 1990 Martin Scorsese classic to which Russell’s film — with its multiple narrators, its probing long takes, and its lively use of pop music — clearly owes a stylistic debt. To some, Hustle pays homage to the Scorsese film; to others, it’s a rip-off of sorts. At any rate, the comparison is an interesting one, since Scorsese himself has his own very Goodfellas-y film, The Wolf of Wall Street, out in theaters now, too. And while Scorsese cannot really be said to rip himself off, his new film has also drawn comparisons to his 23-year-old masterpiece. (Such a fate also befell 1995’s Casino, which some of us now think might actually be an even better film than Goodfellas.)

But all this brings up some good questions: What’s the secret to a good homage? When does homage veer into rip-off territory? Why do some films get away with this sort of thing while other films don’t? And how does American Hustle fit into this dynamic?

Some homages are very simple: They briefly nod at a familiar element to pay their respects to a previous film or filmmaker, and move along on their merry, and very different, way. Think of Uma Thurman’s Anna Karina wig in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or Wong Kar-wai’s borrowings from the score for Once Upon a Time in America in his martial arts epic The Grandmaster. This is probably the simplest, and most effective, form of homage.

But some films go beyond that with their referentiality, seeming to borrow their whole stylistic ethos from another film. Here, a film that feels too much like another in the same genre, or that takes place in a similar setting, can have a harder time of it. For example, when I first saw Moon, I was uncomfortable about the weird similarities between Duncan Jones’s film and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve since come to like Moon, but at the time, it seemed like Jones was using the work of a more original filmmaker as a crutch on which to stand. And Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood may borrow even more heavily from 2001; but because it’s not about space travel or moon colonization, its referentiality is less distracting.

Actually, P.T. Anderson and Kubrick share a couple of similarities in this regard. When Anderson first unleashed Boogie Nights, many criticized that film for being just an assemblage of references — to Goodfellas, certainly, but also to the work of Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, and others. And back in the day, Jean-Luc Godard (let that sink in for a moment) dinged Kubrick for being basically just a diligent reference artist enamored of Max Ophuls and John Huston. “This is the film of a good pupil, no more,” he wrote of Kubrick’s classic noir thriller The Killing. Neither Anderson nor Kubrick would have denied the influences, but today, you don’t hear many such complaints about either Boogie Nights or The Killing (or Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which is even more Ophulsian). That’s because both Anderson and Kubrick proved themselves to be filmmakers of singular vision. You watch The Killing and Paths of Glory today, and you don’t so much see Ophuls as you see Kubrick — you see his stylistic and thematic hallmarks.

People like to quote T.S. Eliot and say, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” Actually, the exact quote is a bit different, and more nuanced. Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In other words, when Eliot uses the word steal, he’s not just talking about taking, but also about making something your own, building on what you’ve taken, and creating something new out of it.

There are numerous terrific examples of this. Many of the great American films of the seventies owed a huge debt, for example, to John Ford’s The Searchers. But whether it was Paul Schrader’s Hard Core or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (written, not coincidentally, by Schrader), these films all used the template of The Searchers to explore their own eras. Brian De Palma was, for many years, slagged by many critics for being a Hitchcock rip-off artist — until, gradually, it became clear in films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double that he was taking the Hitchockian stylistic and thematic template to illogical, psychotic extremes. More recently, I can’t help but think of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, which takes from both The Searchers and another iconic Ford film, The Quiet Man, to create a vision of an Old World that is about to be destroyed by the mechanized horror of World War I.

And here’s where American Hustle comes in. Yes, in some ways, the film is very reminiscent of Goodfellas. In his review, our own David Edelstein describes the stylistic echoes well: “[Russell] out-Scorseses Scorsese: whip pans, whooshes, slo-mo, tacky (but great) seventies chart toppers, actors wound up and let loose.”

But thematically, Hustle does something very different. True to Eliot’s dictum, it creates something new out of familiar elements. Let’s take the dual voice-over, for example. In Scorsese’s film, both Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) are tour guides of a sort, and they jointly narrate the film. When Karen first butts in on Henry’s voice-over, the film is charged by the hilarity and boldness of her intrusion. It sets us up for some of the things she does later in the film. But it also creates a kind of solidarity between the two: Henry and Karen see different parts of the mob experience, and the fact that they’re both narrating allows Scorsese to give us a more fully formed vision of this world. (We can witness scenes where Henry isn’t present but Karen is, for example.)

Scorsese’s characters are creatures of their environment; Russell’s characters rarely fit into their environment. The ping-ponging narration in the early scenes of Hustle between Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) reveals their vulnerabilities as well as the effect they’re having on each other: “He had this air about him, and he had this confidence that drew me to him,” Sydney tells us, even though we’ve seen that Irv is anything but comfortable in his own skin. “He was who he was. He didn’t care.” Remember, she’s saying this about a man who spends obscene amounts of time perfecting his comb-over. Irv observes something similar about Sydney, even though she tells us that her dream, “more than anything, was to become anything else other than who I was.” Which she does, when she becomes the faux-British aristocrat Lady Edith Greensley. Both Irv and Syd are anxious figures, constantly trying to be someone else; and yet, to each other, at least at first, they seem like masters of their domain.

American Hustle uses its fractured point of view not to describe the world around it, as in Goodfellas, but to show the effect that its characters are having on one another – quite appropriate for a film that’s all about con men. Like all of Russell’s films, this is a story about people (and actors) from very different psychic realities colliding. These desperate people have competing needs: Irv’s quest for stability, Sydney’s quest for the good life, Richie DiMaso’s (Bradley Cooper) quest for success and recognition, Carmine Polito’s (Jeremy Renner) quest for jobs for his constituents.  Again, Edelstein puts it very eloquently: “[Russell] cultivates a state of disequilibrium that liberates actors and captures the messy collision of self-interests at the heart of the American comedy.”

Similarly, while Russell may share Scorsese’s fondness for bravura camera movements and bouncing narrators, he doesn’t share Scorsese’s moral vision; he has his own. Scorsese tells stories of sin and redemption, of people who debase themselves and come out on the other side. Russell doesn’t feel the need to redeem anybody, because his characters are already ennobled, in his mind: They’re children whose corruption is merely a side-effect of their dreams of a better life. Not unlike their director, they steal to make things their own.