Genre: Crime/Period
Premise: The 1970s-set true story of a con-artist, who was forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters, and politicians – namely, the volatile mayor of Camden, New Jersey.
About: I reviewed this script back in April in my newsletter.  Since I’m gearing up for a big 2014, I haven’t had time to put many new posts together.  Hence this is a re-post of that review.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I will soon, and I’m interested to see what they changed.  This draft (aggressively titled “American Bullshit”) was written by Eric Warren Singer.  Since then, David O. Russell (who also directs the film) rewrote it.  Singer made his mark over a decade ago when he sold a wild screenplay titled “The Sky Is Falling” that had all of Hollywood a-buzz.  He then went ten more years (selling a few more screenplays) before one of his scripts, The International, was produced.  Singer’s got a pretty interesting backstory worth checking out.
Writer: Eric Warren Singer (based on a true story)
Details: 133 pages – 9/2/10 draft


Okay, let’s get to the important stuff right off the bat. Bradley Cooper is dating a 20 year old?? And her name is Suki Waterhouse?? What’s up with that?? Didn’t Cooper blow off his Silver Linings Playbook co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, because she was “too young”? Well Bradley, she was 22. Which is two years older than your current girlfriend. And Suki Waterhouse? That name is only cool if you’re a movie star. Not cool otherwise.

Now what were we talking about? Oh yeah, David O Russell’s next project. Looks like we’re going back to the 70s for this one. Russell’s been playing with tiny budgets for 15 years now. I guess when you get two actors Academy Awards though, and your last two “artsy” movies made over 250 million dollars, the studio’s willing to open up the offers. Hence, we get a big grand period piece.

Russell’s taking on a tough genre though – the crime flick. The only one who makes consistent money in this genre is Scorsese. You saw what happened when they gave a non-Scorsese the reigns to one of these films (Gangster Squad). It landed like a piano being dropped from a tenth story Manhattan apartment. So there’s an inherent risk there. Now, personally, I didn’t think the script to Gangster Squad was all that. When you’re writing a crime flick, it’s gotta have some BITE. It’s gotta have tough scary guys pulling the strings, the kind of guys who make you wet your pants with a glance. Gangster Squad didn’t have that. American Bullshit does.

It’s 1979 and Mel Weinberg (Christian Bale) is living the life. The LYING life. Mel is a professional bullshitter. And lucky for him, he lived in a time where you could make a living bullshitting. There was no Google to do a quick background check. People had to take you at your word. And if you were a fast-talker, charming, and you knew how to smile at just the right time, you could convince a lot of people to do things that they didn’t want to do.

What Mel does for a living is a little complicated. Basically, he gets people to invest money in companies that don’t exist. By the time these investors find out these companies don’t exist, Mel and his partner/lover Maxine (Jennifer Lawrence) are long gone. This works out for him for awhile, but eventually the FBI catch on to what he’s doing and shake him down.

They give him a choice. You can either go to jail, or help us take down some other guys – guys doing the same thing you are. Mel’s first instinct is to go to jail, but when they threaten to throw Maxine in the slammer too, he changes his mind. Fine, he’s in. The catch is, he doesn’t get to work alone. FBI Special Agent James Boyle (Bradley Cooper) will have to work with him every step of the way.

Here’s where things get fun. In order to take down the FBI’s primary target, an influential New Jersey mayor who has his dirty hands in all the Atlantic City casinos, they have to create the kind of pretend investor that would attract him. So they build up this fake Arabian Sheikh who’s willing to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at Atlantic City. The plan ends up working, but a little TOO well.

When rumor spreads that a Sheikh is going to be dumping money into every building with a slot machine in it, everybody wants a piece. But one of those folks sticks out a little more than the others. Arthur Zelnick. Zelnick is the top dog. He controls Atlantic City. Nobody makes money in this town unless he’s taking most of it. If this Sheikh wants to play, he’s going to need to play through Zelnick.

But that’s not the best part. Zelnick is able to operate because he’s paying off congressmen and senators. All of a sudden, the FBI realizes that they’re no longer going after a bunch of nobodies. This could be one of the biggest government corruption busts in U.S. history. What started as a thin story about a fake Sheikh all of a sudden requires elaborate planning and backstory so that nobody suspects the ruse. And the puppet show will be constructed by the biggest bullshitter of them all, Mel.

I’m going to tell you why this script worked so well. STAKES. I don’t know why I keep forgetting how important stakes are. But if you use them wisely, they can make any story interesting. The key is to keep raising them as the story goes on. So at any moment in the script, the pressure and intensity are twice as high as they were 15 pages prior. That’s especially important for crime movies cause what’s the point of a crime movie if the problem isn’t getting more dangerous as the story goes on?

First it’s Mel trying to survive on his own. Then he gets caught. Then he’s told they have to take down 5 small fries. One of those guys leads them to the mayor. Then a couple of bigger guys want the action. Then Zelnick wants the action. If Mel gets caught at the beginning, he gets a black eye. If he gets caught in the middle, he’s going to jail. If Zelnick finds out he’s a sham, he’s dead. Plain and simple. So when we get to that point, we FEEL the enormity of the moment. Mel has EVERYTHING to lose. That’s how you know if your stakes are high enough. How much does your character have to lose if he fails?

The big problem with the script is the female roles. They’re terrible. It’s as if Singer’s never met a woman before. Maxine is a total waste. She has one or two scenes where her and Max have heartfelt conversations but that’s it. Now that I think about it, she just disappears from the last third of the story. I don’t even remember her.

Strangely enough, Mel is married in the story. So you’re thinking that sooner or later he’ll have to make a choice between the two women. Or there’s going to be a confrontation between them. Or his wife is going to find out about Maxine. Anything so that the conflict from that personal part of his life will play into the story. But nothing like that ever happens. It’s so bizarre. I’m guessing that they’re totally rewriting this part for Jennifer Lawrence. Russell’s pretty good at writing female characters so I’m sure he’ll take care of it.

It’s weird. Whenever I see an amateur tackle one of these scripts, it’s a disaster. There are tons of characters and no direction. So when I read something like American Bullshit, where the storytelling is so effortless, it’s a little deceiving, because it tricks you into thinking it’s easy. It’s not. Singer was smart in that he laid out the goal very clearly: We’re using you, Mel, to take down the bad guys. I mean, that’s the story right there. And it worked. This was a good script!

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This complex subject matter (crime, period piece, lots of characters) makes writers think that they have to live up to a certain complexity with their story. But some of the best crime films are really simple, like this one. I mean, the narrative basically amounts to “Good guys go after bad guys.” I think this can be applied to any genre. No matter how big your story is, always ask yourself if you can plot it simply.

  • andyjaxfl

    Great movie. The finished product sounds a bit different than this draft. David Russell addressed the female character issues in his draft as I thought both Adams’ and Lawrence’s characters were pretty fleshed out and unique at that. And Christian Bale was tremendous in this flick, particularly after the introduction of the Miami mobster. That is how you played scared shitless on the inside while keeping your Bogart cool on the outside. Wow.

    Is Russell ever going to finish that movie Nailed? If I’m not mistaken, I think 95% of principal photography was completed before production stopped. And now that Russell seems to be hitting a box office and critical home run (he’s 3 for his last 3), I wonder if the studio producing the Uncharted video game is going to go back to his draft. I haven’t read it, but I do recall reading a review that said it was a unique take on the material.

    Happy New Year everyone!

    • Nate

      Uncharted was actually quite good. It kind of follows the same basic story as the first game but it has a different way of going about it. If you’ve played the game then you’ll instantly recognise some of the scenes.
      Only thing I didn’t like about it was that Sully had been turned into a bit of a prick.

  • fragglewriter

    It would be great for you to compare your review to the final product.

    I’ve read mixed reviews about this film. I also have a friend who works at a studio who didn’t care for the movie as well as her boss. They work in the business and their main complaint was that nothing happened and the running time.

    David O. Russell is the Frank Capra of out times. If you like Frank Capra, then you’ll love David’s work. I liked “It Happened One NIght” but unfortunately not “Arsenic and Old Lace.” The jokes were hitting but I wasn’t laughing. 30 minutes later I found out why I wasn’t responded and turned the film off. Everyone was hitting 10’s, which is good, but I couldn’t sustain the 10’s (overacting for the duration of the film).

  • leitskev

    Hmm. The draft sounds rather different than the film, which is somewhat complicated, as should be expected in a story about conmen and hustles. And the movie makes a specific point of blurring the lines between who the good guys and who the bad guys are. In the end, it’s the FBI agent who gets hustled and loses his job. Some of the bad guys go to jail, but the movie goes out of its way to say that the real bad guys(the money men, gangsters) got away, while politicians who were just trying to help their community(the film says this, not me) paid a price.

    And the two main female characters were given more depth and complexity than any I’ve seen in recent film.

    Also, the biggest problem with the film: STAKES.

    Through the long first half of the film, to the extent that there are any stakes, the audience could care less about them. The FBI agent(Cooper) is using the hustlers(Bale and Adams) to go after corrupt politicians. Bale and Adams are only doing it because they are being forced to, and we don’t know the people being brought down, and the FBI is kind of the antagonist, so why would we care about the vague goal? We don’t. That’s the equivalent of no stakes. Even when we finally meet one of the targets, Mayor Polito(Renner), he emerges as the most sympathetic character in the story, so we have no desire to see him go down.

    It’s only late in the story, when Bale and Adams are in danger, caught between the mob and the FBI, that any worthwhile stakes develop, as we watch to see how they get out of this pickle.

    You might want to check out the movie, Carson, because everything in this review sounds like the direct opposite of the film.

  • DontStealMyScript

    The trailers for this movie make me want to go see it. And Carson’s review makes me want to see it even more. But is Scorsese really the only writer who can make successful crime films? What about Soderbergh and the Ocean franchise? What about Singer and The Usual Suspects? There are other directors who also do well in this genre.

    • Alex Palmer

      True, but Crime pictures are still risky investments, especially if they are period pieces. Scorsese is one of the few directors of this genre who can pretty much guarantee a return (Micheal Mann too?).

      Its when Scorsese veers away from crime pictures that he becomes less of a safe bet. Hugo was very nearly a box-office flop.

  • Andrew Orillion

    I loved this movie! It went straight to the top of my top ten list. What I loved about it was the non-stop conflict. Every scene was bursting with it. There was conflict between Bale and Cooper, Bale and Adams, Adams and Cooper, Bale and his own sense of right and wrong and everyone had a conflict with Bale’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence. All this conflict kept the movie humming along and made every sense incredibly tense as I waited for the conflicts to boil over and make trouble for everyone.

    I also liked the con game element didn’t overshadow the characters. A lot of these con game movies are all about the con and they become kind of puzzle box where you’re always trying to stay one step ahead of the story so you can figure out who’s really getting conned. “American Hustle” avoided these pitfalls by focusing on character first and plot second.

    The draft you’re describing is very different. In the movie, Jennifer Lawrence is Bale’s wife and it’s Amy Adams (who owns this movie) who plays the partner and fellow con artist. Also, this Zelnick character is not in the movie. Instead, the target of the sting operations is the mayor of Camden New Jersey.

    It sounds like Russel simplified the story, trimmed off the fat and but the focus where it needed to be, on the conflict and the relationships between the characters.

    Like I said, really dug this movie and I think you will too, Carson.

  • Andrew Orillion

    Also, if you’ve never read “The Sky is Falling”, you owe it to yourself to read it. It is one of the wildest, craziest most WTF scripts you’ll ever read. It’s a shame the movie will never get made. The link in Carson’s review is busted, so here’s a link to my copy of the script.

    • tobban

      Thanks for the link. Looking forward to reading The Sky is Falling. If you have a link or the script for American Hustle, please send it my way:

      Thank you !

    • Poe_Serling

      “The Sky is Falling”… is one of the wildest, craziest most WTF scripts you’ll ever read.”

      David Fincher was attached to the project for a short time. If I’m not mistaken, it was right after he scored with Se7en at New Line.

      The script/film in Fincher’s hands would’ve be an eye-popping experience to say the least. ;-)

  • drifting in space

    The draft I read is very different from the film, but it sounds like this is a good thing. Excited to check this one out.

    • RogueCreed

      The movie is great. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

  • pmlove

    I saw the film first and loved it – when I read the script I was disappointed. American Hustle refocused it to a love story essentially, taking the time to make us care about the leads – this wants to be more a gangster flick (eg the slightly cheesy Operation opening).

    As leitskev mentions, the stakes don’t carry the film (although I’d argue they carry the final act), it’s the characters. Stripping out the unnecessary characters (of which the script has many) gives ample time to build the ones that carry the film. Ones we care about. I mean, there’s a good ten minute back story montage, with voice overs. But it works and it works because of the teaser structure – start us halfway in and the goal / stakes become less important because we already know where the film is going.

    It’s the ‘Macbeth’ version – tell the audience up front what will happen and finding out how we get there is part of the ride.

    • leitskev

      Absolutely on the money, PM. The stakes develop in time for the final act and add the tension that had been completely lacking before that point. The movie was enjoyable through the first half because of the characterizations and the dialogue, but it was also lacking any story engine. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few people asleep in the theater in the early going.

      I agree the teaser was a smart move because it told us there would be stakes eventually. But it was also kind of limited in that regard, as the tone suggested humor and perhaps a romance triangle more than high stakes.

      The film demonstrates the talents of the writers in the outstanding dialogue and characterizations…but it’s not the best way to write a script. Developing stakes that slowly, while having nothing else…mystery for example…to carry the tune is risky. IMHO.

      • pmlove

        I’d say the opening was more in the ‘Up’ mold – you first get the audience to like the characters (and not in a ‘Save the Cat’ way) and then you can have the action be a backdrop for a character piece, which all the best films ultimately are (sweeping – feel free to smack me down).

        The stakes are only important once I care about the characters.

  • Matteo

    I’ll be interested to read this one as I didn’t think much of the finished film at all. It came off as way too mannered and over-acted for my liking, and I didn’t like any of the characters. Not one. So I’d be intrigued to see how much has been altered from the script.

  • Matty

    I found this to be a messy, unenjoyable, questionably directed,
    extremely average film. Amy Adams didn’t seem sure who her character
    was, Bradley Cooper literally rehashed his Silver Linings character, and
    Jennifer Lawrence gleefully overacted. Some scenes were downright silly
    – J Law singing to live and let die, unintentionally hilarious. Like
    every other good con film, this one is completely devoid of surprises –
    everything is broadcast ahead of time so when it comes we’re not
    surprised one bit. Jeremy Renner is the best and most interesting
    character, but he’s completely glossed over by the other cartoons in the
    film. Cooper, Bale, Lawrence, Adams – nothing but cartoons. Some scenes are cringe-worthy in how ridiculously written they are.

    The most surprising con about this film is convincing people it’s amazing. Not sure how it pulled it off, but it’s quite the hat trick. Nothing about this film is exceptional, aside from the acting, but even then, it feels like good acting in a vacuum, especially since the characters are so silly.

    • JW

      I have to say that I’m not in disagreement with what you say here. I didn’t hate it, but I probably would have switched Lawrence and Adams’ roles because I just can’t see anyone leaving Lawrence for Adams. She’s too smokin’. I also agree that this was one of the first times I really felt Renner was believable. Never really liked him as an actor. Overall, this is one of those stories that if told by an ‘amateur’ is a “train wreck” but when done so by a Hollywood “heavyweight” is termed “genius”. Oh to be on that side of the fence… daydreaming in the sky…

      • Matty

        Indeed. If this was released by a nobody… it wouldn’t have a 94% or whatever on RT. I’d have placed this more around 65% if I had seen it before seeing the RT score.

        I would say this is just an example where I’m the person that doesn’t like the film that everyone loves, but I know more people that feel the same as me about this film than people that like/love it.

        • drifting in space

          I was excited for it but it looks kind of boring. Still excited though… Ugh… I’m debating between this, WOWS, and Her. I only want to spend 2+ hours in the theater once…

          I’m not buyin’ Jennifer Lawrence in make-up to make her look older. The part just looks… off to me.

          • Matty

            I will admit Jennifer Lawrence was fun to watch, but she always is. That’s just her. She does well DESPITE her character.

            I’d go see Her, catch this on DVD. I honestly don’t think it’s worth ticket price.

          • drifting in space

            I think I saw that you loved Wolf on Wall Street. Between Her and WOWS, which would you suggest?

            I have to make a case for one otherwise I’m off to see Frozen, not that I mind. Heard it’s fantastic.

          • Matty

            Haven’t seen Her – I was just suggesting that based on my opinion of Hustle and what friends have told me about Her.

            But yes, LOVED Wolf of Wall Street. Magnificent, fun, grandiose film full of debauchery. If you don’t like people doing drugs or promiscuous sex, I wouldn’t see it. At least ten people walked out of my theatre, I could tell it was because of one of those two. Most of the negative reviews seem to be about how “disgusting” it is. I found it wildly entertaining, myself.

            It’s my second favorite of 2013 behind 12 Years a Slave.

          • drifting in space

            Dude, I’m cool with that. In fact, I love that type of lifestyle. Just watched American Psycho again last night actually. Wall Street is amazing as well.

            I think I’ve made my decision…

          • Matty

            If you like that type of lifestyle portrayed in movies, you’ll love Wolf. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much drug use in a film not about drug use (like Requiem for a Dream for example). And sex. And language (I believe it set the new record for non-documentary use of “fuck”). Similar structure to Casino, but way better than that film. Only Scorsese could make it so much fun. Plus, probably DiCaprio’s best performance ever.

            And Jonah Hill is equal parts hilarious and creepy. He’s a scene stealer and there’s plenty of him. And the actress who plays Naomi is fantastic, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before.

            Hope you like it! It was a hell of a good time for me.

          • Alex Palmer

            I’m sold! You make it sound similar to The Thick of It.

          • Matty

            Haven’t seen that actually. But yeah, as long as you aren’t totally put off by the aforementioned debauchery, I think you’d like it.

            I truly do put it on par with Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas. It’s incredibly similar to Goodfellas, just for a more modern era. I believe Terence Winter (the writer) even called it a companion piece to Goodfellas. That’s a high mark to hit, but it was a home run for me. Really really can’t wait to see it again.

          • Kirk Diggler

            Sacrilege. Wolf of Wall Street can’t touch Goodfellas. It’s just a cheap knock-off. Scorsese uses the exact same story telling devices he used in Goodfellas and it feels cheap and unnecessary. Unlike GF, there is almost NO STORY. None. The set up was pretty good, but once Dicaprio’s character establishes Stratton Oakmont it’s the same scene over and over and over. There is zero arc for anybody. It’s three hours of hookers and blow. How is that entertaining?

            It doesn’t help that Jordan Belfort is a total asshat. Not remotely likable, It says a lot that Henry Hill was a guy you could root for while doing many of the same things Belfort did (sex,drugs, stealing). But a young Ray Liotta has infinitely more charm than Leonardo could ever hope to have. He just comes across as privileged frat boy, not some poor kid from Queens.

            If this is a Best Picture nominee then there is something wrong with the movie business. You could literally walk out of the theater, go take a 5 minute shit, come back in and not feel like you missed a thing. It’s the same beat over and over. Every scene is about three minutes longer than it needs to be.

            How many times do we need to see Belfort give the same speech to his ravenous employees? How many times do we need to see Belfort and Jonah Hill’s character get high on ludes or coke? How many scenes of fully exposed lady bits do we need? I have never seen so much twat in an R-rated film from a respectable filmmaker in my life. I grant you, this should make it interesting when it comes out on Blu-Ray. Let’s see how much of Margot Robbie’s sweet breeze we can catch on freeze frame.

            But seriously, there is little redeeming value to this film. Debauchery and excess does not a film make. Scorsese has been accused of reveling in his violent scenes over the years. Well here he does it with sex and drugs. Personally, I think a little goes a long way. (and believe me I’m no prude) As a filmmaker, he is not saying, “Look how bad these guys are, they’re stealing people’s money and literally spending it by snorting coke out of a prostitute’s bunghole”.

            Stylistically he’s saying, “Look how fun that is!!”

            I guarantee you most people (especially young men) walk out of that theater saying to themselves, “Man, Jordan Belfort was an amazing guy!…. and he pretty much got away with it save for a few years in a country club prison!!” I’m not saying that Scorsese has to have a message. He’s rarely been that kind of filmmaker. But this film is literally just nothing more than a glamorization of a destructive culture masquerading as an “important film”. It’s not. It’s something Michael Bay would make.

          • Matty

            What can I say except I was wildly entertained by it. I don’t even abhor certain aspects of that lifestyle (if people want to do drugs, I don’t care, let them). I do obviously abhor those people, however.

            I can’t really argue the glamorization thing, that’s something many people have said, and it’s simply my opinion that the film didn’t turn people like Jordan into heroes. Sure, some people will come out with the feeling that Jordan was a pretty badass awesome dude. Nothing I can do about that, but it wasn’t how I felt.

            Depicting something is not inherently condoning or glamorizing it, to me. Scorsese is awesome for the very fact that he doesn’t try to send a message. He shows us a world and lets us decide.

            And there is also the reality that guys like Belfort rarely, if ever, actually do get what they deserve. Most of them get off with what ultimately amounts to a slap on the hand.

            But I mean, fair enough, many people feel the way you do. Though I definitely have to disagree that it’s something Michael Bay would make. Michael Bay could never make a picture like that. (I did actually enjoy Pain & Gain, which also received similar glamorization criticism)

          • Kirk Diggler

            I understand why people can enjoy this film. I’m not saying I hated it. I think there is a really good two hour film in there somewhere. But there isn’t one scene in the film that can rival the scene in Wall Street where Gordon Gekko gets one pulled over on him by Bud and Sir Larry. It was a cathartic moment for the audience that Gekko got beat at his own game That scene had some real urgency and stakes. WOWS didn’t have anything like it.

            If you took out the whole “lemon Quaalude” sequence starting at the country club and ending with Jonah choking on sandwich meat, would you miss it? It was self-indulgent and meaningless. There isn’t a scene in Goodfellas one could live without. Yet there is so much repetition in WOWS that many scenes are interchangeable. It tells me that the overall story was weak.

            But I realize your mileage may vary, and all this talk is subjective. Still, compared to Goodfellas, this feels like a forgery.

        • JW

          Right. I don’t necessarily think it’s about “what everyone loves versus what you or I love” but it’s definitely about what flies in Hollywood that wouldn’t fly outside of it. I’ve long seen this distinction extremely evident and I’ll make the point right here to say that I’m working with someone on a new script and they told me, “Look, we have to SEE this going down, we have to see the cops do something specific in order to get behind your characters. If you don’t do it, it won’t work.” While I didn’t necessarily disagree with that statement, I found it odd to see how much this person loved this film, and yet, the entire basis for what this film is, is the fact that the FBI is baiting people to do things that we, as the audience, never get to see them do in real life, outside of the setup. This part bothered me, because I didn’t see these characters as corrupt. I saw them as being “painted” corrupt for the sake of the story. The other issue being, and the person said this to me as well, is, we know corruption exists, so you have to take it to the next level. Well, if that’s the case, this film treated corruption like it was a new found art. Lastly, I’m not a fan of O’Russell’s endings. They are always clean and smooth around the edges, generally the opposite of the entire film we’d seen up to that point.

          • Matty

            Could NOT agree more about O Russell’s endings. That was my biggest problem about Silver Linings – the happy, everything-is-fine ending. Seemed to totally contradict everything that came before.

            I still think Three Kings is his best film, Flirting with Disaster not far behind.

    • Paddy

      Yeah, I sort of agree with this too. I liked the film but the pacing was a bit uneven and parts never really worked like Any Adams characters English accent. I’ve not read the script but maybe by giving the characters more depth DOR disrupted the flow of the film a little as it felt a bit stop and start with some scene going on for too long. I felt it actually worked better as a comedy as the scenes between Bale and Lawrence as well as the ones between Louis CK and Cooper were great.

      • J. Lawrence Head

        I still wanna know the point of the fishing story. LOL

  • thedudespeaketh

    Alright, grendl. I’m sold. Going to see a 3:50 screening.

  • pmlove

    The ‘Operation’ was in reference to the script reviewed here, rather than the final film – it’s the opening sequence in which Mel/Irving is forced to play the game ‘Operation’ as part of an intimidating gangster sequence which, for me, didn’t work and was rightly cut.

    Agree that the film was excellent.

  • leitskev

    G-man, did YOU care whether the mission of taking down the corrupt politicians succeeded? If not, what DID you care about as as a viewer? If you did care about the mission, why? The protagonist did not care about the mission. He was forced into the goal. Stakes that don’t matter to the audience are not stakes. In this case, the stakes only mattered to Cooper’s FBI character…the antagonist.

    We DID care about the protagonist getting out of his predicament. But those stakes were not amped up enough to the point where they felt important until they got caught between the mob and the FBI. So until that point, the stakes were very weakly driving the story.

    I never said anything about goals changing or not. IMO, goals usually do change. If you’re going to comment arrogantly on my post, at least don’t do so ignorantly. What I called “vague” were the stakes…which are not the same as the goals. If you stop this film at the half way point and ask people in the audience “what’s at stake”, you might learn something about story engines, because people will either have trouble telling you what the stakes are, or if they can they will not be moved by them. In fact, many will answer they care more about Bale and Adams getting back together, but even that’s somewhat vague, as Bale is married and has a kid, and we’re not sure we trust Adam’s intentions. Which is nicely nuanced…excellent characterization…but is vague as far as stakes.

    • pmlove

      My favourite film is Assassination of Jesse James which, when I think about it, has virtually no stakes. If I were smarter, there’d be a conclusion to draw here.

      • leitskev

        I’ve heard that’s a quality film, I have not seen it. I really liked American Hustle. Probably my favorite film this year. But it’s really not stakes driven until the third act. I’m sure if we stopped the film at midpoint and asked people about the stakes we’d get some revealing answers

        • pmlove

          I definitely agree. What I don’t know is how much it matters.

      • Murphy

        My favourite film too.

        There is something driving the story forward though, mostly by the supporting characters and their actions. There are stakes for them too, not wanting Jesse to find out that they killed his cousin etc..

        But I would agree the movie is lacking in stakes for the two central characters, there is nothing urgent that is forcing them to move or actually do anything.

        Somehow that is the beauty of the movie. It shouldn’t work probably, but it does.

  • leitskev

    I agree with your dissection of the plot, and enjoyed the movie, but the stakes were weak through much of the story. That’s a risky thing to do.

  • leitskev

    Are you on meth? Calm down. If you look at my post in yesterday’s thread, you’ll see I liked the film a lot. You get so out of sorts when someone doesn’t see things 100% your way, you become blinded. So instead of being able to have an interesting discussion, you become offensive. But the worst thing is that you are so sure of yourself that you become unable to learn. And when it comes to film, the learning never stops.

    After supper I will read your post carefully so I can separate the insights, which I do enjoy in your opinions, from the ignorance and offensiveness, which pours out at times like a hormonal temper tantrum.

  • grendl

    Hey leitskev.

    If being killed by the Mafia, because Jennifer Lawrence is a loose cannon, shooting off her mouth in every scene and trying to get Bale away from Amy Adams, or killed, aren’t stakes what are?

    If being jailed by the Feds aren’t stakes, what are?

    If losing Amy Adams to Bradley Cooper aren’t stakes what are?

    Please you have to explain it to me in detail. And don’t use some roundabout logic, make it simple because I’m a fairly simple beast. Explain to me why I enjoyed that movie so much if there weren’t any stakes involved or clearly delineated?

    • pmlove

      I tried posting this above, so apologies if there’s a duplicate.

      It’s the lack of threat, rather than the lack of stakes – the stakes exist but no true threat is felt. When Christian Bale chases Jeremy Renner there was no worry if he succeeded or not (despite the stakes existing, this doesn’t translate to a feeling of threat in the film). This didn’t make it more or less interesting. The only time there was any real threat was once the mob was introduced.

      And as to why it’s still enjoyable – I think it’s the characters, dialogue and scene conflict, although I’m still trying to figure out exactly why. Perhaps Carson should do an article (if he agrees that he likes it)?

      • leitskev

        Yes, PM, but the lack of threat is the reason the stakes are limited. To the degree we believe Bale is in danger, the stakes are built. To the degree we believe Cooper is a threat to steal Adams…and to the degree we want to see Adams and Bale remain together…the stakes are built.

    • leitskev

      In every one of my posts I have said that the film is not stakes driven UNTIL they get in the pickle between the Mafia and the FBI. Not sure how many times I should have to repeat it.

      But that comes LATE in the story.

      Yes, being jailed by the feds begins to establish stakes. But it fizzles out as a story engine to a degree once the three of them start working as a team. Increasingly there is even a sense of Bale’s character being in charge. True, Bale is continuously reminded that the feds have him over a barrel. But these reminders don’t take the form of powerful threats as the story explores the complex relationships between the characters.

      There is some threat to Bale’s relationship with Adams due to Cooper, but little pressure is maintained here. We sense she is playing Cooper. And the essential team of Bale and Adams is shown to be basically intact at regular installments, such as when she tries to get him to flee with her to Asia.

      It’s not up to me to explain why you enjoyed the film. Maybe someone bought you a double popcorn. I can only tell you why I enjoyed it: I appreciated the nuanced characters, the excellent dialogue, the fine acting. And the upping of the stakes DID finally arrive late in the story just when it needed a jolt.

  • leitskev

    The mob stakes come late…which is precisely when I said the stakes finally pick up. Losing the woman he loves is very nuanced here for several reasons. One, Bale has a wife and a kid. Two, Amy Adams is a complicated character,and we’re not sure until the end who her loyalties are to. In fact, we’re not sure about Bale’s loyalties either…which is actually the point of the story. These are grifters, people who take you into their “confidence” in order to attain selfish goals. It makes the movies nuanced, gives is subtle depth, and creates interesting questions…but it weakens the stakes. We do have the risk of being jailed as stakes, but I’m not sure how compelling that feels once we travel further down the entrapment schemes, as Bale becomes the teacher and Cooper the eager student.

  • Matty

    If the number of Oscar wins was a measure of anything, Titanic would be the greatest film of all time.

    But either way, American Hustle is not winning Best Picture. I honestly don’t think it will win more than one, maybe two, awards. If I had to bet, I don’t think it will win any. But I also don’t think Wolf of Wall Street will win any.

    And none of that matters one bit.

    • Alex Palmer

      Here here. Oscars are awards, not universal validation that the film “wot I liked best” is in fact “the best”.

      As for predictions, It’s a tad early to speculate, but I agree that WOWS is hardly the frontrunner. Sex and drug controversies doesn’t tend to play well with the Academy. Plus, Leo stars, and I’m beginning to think that they’re in on the joke too.

      My money’s on Captain Phillips atm. Judging purely by critical reaction though, as I haven’t see it :P

      • Kirk Diggler

        12 Years a Slave is winning best Picture. Mortal Lock.

  • pmlove

    I think Leitskev is more referencing that the stakes don’t drive the film and I think (s)he is right. When Christian Bale goes to chase Jeremy Renner after the initial scene, there is no feeling of panic that he MUST succeed otherwise XYZ (as listed in your comment) – it feels more like he is the season vet reluctantly showing his fast and lose protege how to do it right.

    The stakes are there, but there is no feeling of THREAT – I think that is the point. And also that this doesn’t detract, hardly and arbitrary ‘swipe’. It’s the best film I’ve seen for a long time. That doesn’t mean leitskev is wrong.

    It’s only once the mob connection is introduced there is any feeling of fear/threat.

  • Murphy

    I was very disappointed with this movie. My short and pithy review would be “Too many Americans and not enough Hustle”.

    There is a rule about writing films about hustles and cons, while you are telling an engaging story that takes your audience along with you you should also be setting up the biggest hustle of the film – the one that cons your audience.

    We should be the mark in all of these films.

    Anyone not seen Matchstick Men go watch it now, that’s a movie that did it well.

    When movies get this wrong it shows. Take “Now you see me” and compare it against “The Prestige” – can you even compare the two?

    It takes a deal of intelligence to pull off a decent conman film, and honestly if you cannot pull it off then I don’t see the point in trying. I had high hopes for this because I really rate the director but i was disappointed.

    But, I did like the film enough. The performances were great, the love story was engaging and it was actually enjoyable while watching it. I was waiting to have the rug pulled from under me though, and when the film ended I was sat there wondering wtf?

    Bale’s character said something at the start of the third act, something along the lines of “That’s when I figured out what to do”.


    This is a film about conmen! it should have been set-up before the movie even started, not at the end of the second act. The moment Bale said that was also the moment when I knew that this film was not what was promised on the tin.

    So enjoyable enough, but not the classic I was expecting. A bit of a shame really.

    • Matty

      Exactly my feelings.

      The best conmen films have something HAPPENING that we don’t see. There’s none of that here. At all. Not only does some of it come so late in the film, but it’s never a surprise because O. Russell broadcasts it ahead of time. We hear Bale saying he has a plan. We see him wink or nod or whatever at the lawyer guy. Everything is given away as soon as it happens. It’s all explained before it happens, so there is ZERO intrigue as we watch the scenes.

      It completely defies the “tell the audience as LITTLE as possible” principle. It tells us MUCH more than we need to know. And for conmen films, that’s the exact opposite of what you want to do. You want to cut scenes short, you want to withhold as much as possible.

      That’s why I say O. Russell has no idea how to write a good conmen film.

  • juleslefrog

    Thank you for the re-posting the review, Carson. I’ve always loved the original screenplay and thus was disappointed by Russell’s choices for his page one rewrite. As I see it, the plot took a backseat to character development but the characters weren’t fleshed out enough for me to care. So, watching the movie, I was left with a semi-coherent plot AND cardboard characters and I ultimately lost interest. Now don’t get me wrong, Russell’s very good at crowd-pleasing moments and is an amazing director of actors so the result is still entertaining, but not as good as it could have been. The stakes were there only because they were clearly spelled out for us in the dialogue, but I never FELT them. Just my 2 cents.
    Happy writing year to all of you, and thank you for the wonderful resource that is this website and its community.

  • Matty

    “Where you agree with me are legitimate insight, where you disagree is profound ignorance.”

    Have fun at that party….

  • Andrew Orillion

    Just sent it from It’s a crazy one, you’ll enjoy it.

  • walker

    The problem with American Bullshit is that the subject is just too vast to be covered in a screenplay. Happy New Year!

  • jridge32

    Definitely one of the more uninvolving movie-going experiences of the year..

  • Brad

    Don’t worry, dude. Everything else you’ve written is DEAD-ON and I would be pissed if I was explaining – in clear and precise detail – the narrative components of the film and get “err, I don’t know, I didn’t FEEL the stakes, I guess” responses in return. The point of this site, hopefully, is to examine the many different elements that go into a script (and also story, as well) and to see responses that don’t seem to be interested in those elements make me a little sad.

    • leitskev

      That was not my response, don’t misrepresent it. It’s clear from my posts that I am interested in the different elements, and I began the discussion on it. You don’t have to agree with my conclusions, but ironically you are the one who has not taken the time to discuss the plotting or story choices. If you have something intelligent to add to the discussion, I’m waiting.

      As far as Grendl’s post, he merely related the basics of the plot. That’s useful if you didn’t watch the film, I guess. I don’t dispute that things happened when he said they did.

      I explained in careful terms…several times…why this is not stakes driven. The stakes are somewhat watered in order to allow for more complex and dimensional characters.

      Let me get you up to speed on the ‘feeling’ stuff. If the audience doesn’t care about the stakes…then they are not stakes. To the degree it doesn’t care, the stakes are weakened.

      For example, if the stakes are centered on two characters bonding together, then the characters have to be set up so that we WANT to see them together. If the Bale character had been a wife beater would we want to see him with Adams? That’s a simple example to illustrate.

      If the film succeeds in making us want to see the characters bond, then the next element to making stakes is to create significant obstacles to that bond. If we buy into those obstacles, then we create stakes.

      The filmmakers chose to blur the lines here in order to make complex characters. So we’re not fully sure Bale and Adams belong together. We kind of do, but it’s not that sharp. And while there are obstacles to them staying together(Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, the kid), there is never a long period when they are not working as a team. And we don’t ever sense Adams is truly interested in Cooper…she is playing him.

      So it’s a nicely nuanced movie. Not one with powerful stakes driving it.

      • leitskev

        Another quick example: I recently watched the first half hour of the Hobbit, the one that came out over a year ago. The stakes are clear…but that are a problem.

        The wizard gathers a band of dwarfs at Bilbo’s house…without permission. The dwarfs intend to recapture their long lost mountain from the dragon who stole it. The dwarfs want their gold back.

        Gandalf has brought them to Bilbo’s because he intends to recruit Bilbo for the mission. Why? Mostly because he wants Bilbo to go on adventure, as he once dreamed of as a boy before he grew content.

        So we have the goal and stakes: to retake the dwarf mountain. If they fail, they will likely all perish.

        But why should we care if the dwarfs get their gold, which the opening makes clear was corrupting them anyway? Why should Bilbo care? So the stakes, though clear, do not move us.

  • leitskev

    The shame of it is, G, that I enjoy your posts normally and usually share in your analysis. And even here, our understanding of the plot is completely in agreement…as it should be, there’s nothing hard to figure out.

    But you seem to get confused about what I say, or anyone else for that matter, because you are so eager to listen to your own words that nothing else penetrates.

    You were the one that brought goals into the discussion, not me. And goals are related to stakes…but they are not the stakes.

    Where we differ…and it’s ok to differ on this, because it’s a subjective kind of thing…is on the weight of the stakes here. What I have tried to convey to you is that if the audience does not care about “the stakes”, they are not really stakes.

    If the audience does not care whether Amy Adams and Bale renew their love…then those are not stakes.

    If the audience does not care whether the bad guys are taken down in the stings…then those are not stakes.

    We do have stakes in this film. But before he gets into the pickle between the mafia and the feds, the stakes are very weak. They don’t drive the story much at all. We’re not sure if Adams and Bale belong together. We don’t want to see Polito go down. We don’t care about the mafia guys. We DO care about Bale and Adams not going to jail, but the threat does not feel very powerful or lasting. So it’s not a stakes driven story.

    This is not…and you seem to have trouble with this part…saying the film is flawed. Not at all. It was a CHOICE by the writers.

    If this was a Frank Capra film, the characters of Bale and Adams would be more clearly “good” and the Cooper character “bad”. For example, maybe Adams would have been a hooker with a heart of gold forced into her lifestyle, and Bale would have been hard boiled and lonely…instead of married. So it would have been crystal clear to the audience they belonged together. Cooper would have been a crooked cop on the take trying to use them to get ahead, a cynical guy instead of a true believer.

    Sharpening the contrasts in this way would have made the stakes clearer and therefore more keenly felt.

    The writers here favored having more complex and compromised characters. Bale is introduced to us as insecure about his hair yet ‘absolutely confident in himself’. Adams is won over by getting her choice in fur coats left behind at the dry cleaners.

    They are both cons, and we’re never sure if one is setting up the other. The only thing telling us they belong together is perhaps that they both are cons and make a good team. So that feeds the stakes to a degree, but also the degree to which we feel their relationship is in jeopardy is also limited, further eroding the stakes. The sense of jeopardy is there, as she plays with Cooper, but it’s not SHARP, as she offers to leave with him to escape(he refuses because of the adopted son). There is never a time when the bond between them feels truly threatened.

    So the stakes are there, but they are not at all sharp. They don’t move an audience(not until the mafia jam,which is late). That means this is not a stakes driven story. It is character driven. And I really enjoyed it as such. That was the intent of the filmmakers, and they did a masterful job.

  • Bella_Lugossi

    Catch Me If You Can was just on TV. Totally enjoyable (and I had seen it a couple of times already). Cat and mouse, but also buddy. I would like to write something like that. It seems a lot of fun.

  • leitskev
  • leitskev