Ever since the Golden Globes — a.k.a. the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a.k.a. a very small (under 100) group of cultishly enigmatic and otherwise insignificant entertainment-industry journalists from around the world who like getting free drinks and being photographed with movie stars — voted to choose American Hustle as one of their five nominees for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, there’s been an unofficial debate, played out in reviews and early water-cooler chatter, about whether or not the movie is, in fact, a comedy. I think we can agree that it’s not a musical (though I did love its use of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and that Arabic cover version of “White Rabbit”). To me, it’s not a comedy either, although it did make me laugh a lot. Some critics I hold in high esteem, like Richard Corliss of Time and Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, have said that the movie is, indeed, a comedy. A hundred Talmudic scholars could chew over the question of whether there are enough jokes in American Hustle to leave you giggling on the head of a pin — and if there are, I suppose that would mean that, yes, the movie is a comedy. I personally think that the Golden Globes, trying to smear the wealth around in their usual promiscuous and fun and quasi-mindless way, made a categorical mistake. But in the end, it’s not really a big deal. I’m glad that American Hustle — a great movie, whether it’s a drama or a comedy — got nominated in one of the Globes’ Best Motion Picture categories instead of being left out. That gives it awards momentum. By the time the Oscar nominations come along, no one will remember, or care very much, about whether American Hustle was unfairly branded as a movie that’s fundamentally a laff riot.
Yet the issue raised by this Golden Globes kerfuffle is great fun to talk about. Because in their WTF way, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has backed into a highly resonant issue. American Hustle is an outrageously entertaining, often brilliantly funny lark, a tale of con artists and capers and the law getting hijacked by both. That’s the comedy part. But in its lightly tossed-off way, the film is also a resonant look at what makes con artists tick, and at the whole spirit of fraudulence in America — why we often seem to be deceivers at every level, from the romantic to the political. That’s the humming interior drama. There’s nothing in the film more comically over-the-top than the complicated comb-over sported by Irving Rosenfeld, the swindler whose very appearance is a fraud that’s fooling no one (but also sort of is). There are a couple of good laugh lines that come at the expense of his hair. Yet the film opens with a two-minute scene in which he assembles that bird’s nest of elongated back strands, glued-on chunk of toupee, and hairspray, and Christian Bale plays it with the solemnity of a monk putting on his robes. From the start, the film seems to be saying: You wannna laugh? Go ahead. But if you think that’s all there is to this movie, the joke’s on you.
The reason the characterization of American Hustle as a comedy is perhaps harmless, but also a little irksome, is that it seems to be a product of market-think, of how to sell the movie (“Relax, people, it’s just a comedy!”). And so it plays, potentially, as a trivialization of the film’s achievement. The more I thought about the whole American-Hustle-as-comedy trope, the more it brought me back to the great era of movies that this one draws from: not just GoodFellas (1990), though that’s its most obvious influence, but the sprawling and often very funny tales of hungry outsiders, of appetite and corruption and eager, desperate lives, that thrived, famously, in the 1970s. At that time, there were plenty of movies that seemed about as serious as you could get — and yet, when you think back on them, they thrived on the electricity of comic confrontation. The most important actor of the ’70s was Jack Nicholson, and it would be insane to describe him as a “comedian,” yet he was always brilliantly, at times acidly funny. He played men who thought of themselves as jokesters, and part of what made you laugh at Nicholson is the way that he lorded it over people (with a cackle of mad triumph), and part of what made you laugh is how he fell short of living up to that facade. So many movies of the ’70s were funny, but never just funny. In her review of the film of visionary violence that launched the era — Bonnie and Clyde — Pauline Kael made reference to a woman in the audience who kept reassuring the person she’d come with by saying, “It’s a comedy!” And you could argue, at moments, that Bonnie and Clyde is. Yet it’s also a tragedy. And an outré soap opera of torn, conflicted love. It was that blend of tones that made it revolutionary. (American Hustle, too, is all about the blend, as its director, David O. Russell, understands all too well.)
M*A*S*H (1970), Robert Altman’s first big movie, was unabashedly a comedy, and there are ways that it pioneered the snark of our own era. M*A*S*H was a movie about two surgeons in the middle of a war who do almost nothing but…make fun of things. They were Beavis and Butt-head with brains. Altman went on to make the luminously downbeat, snowbound Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), but his 1975 masterpiece, Nashville — which happens to be my all-time favorite film — is a movie that is at times slyly, and at other times spellbindingly, funny. Altman had a vein of mockery that grew right out of his judgmental yet tender Catholic soul. He couldn’t help but laugh at the people he showed you; it was the absurdity of their flaws that, in his view, sealed their humanity. So is Nashville a comedy? You could argue that it’s a great comedy. You could also argue that it’s most complex and soulful vision of America that the movies have given us in the last half century.
Here are some other films that are rich with laughter yet that I would never, ever call comedies (though maybe on some level they are). Blue Velvet. Out of Sight. Sid and Nancy. It’s a Wonderful Life. Rain Man. A Clockwork Orange. Boogie Nights. Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Network. The Adventures of Robin Hood. Natural Born Killers. Rio Bravo. My Dinner with André. Dog Day Afternoon. Yojimbo. Alfie. Carrie. Amarcord. The Last Detail. Dazed and Confused. Psycho. GoodFellas. Is The Sopranos, which grew right out of GoodFellas, a comedy? I would say that it’s a drama that makes you laugh out loud, until the laughter sticks in your craw, at which point you may begin to choke on it.
It may seem like I’m chewing on a hair-splitting semantic issue. There are great movies that have a lot of laughs but still aren’t comedies, yet you might, on occasion, think of them as comedies, and if you did, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Yet I believe that the whole comedy/drama distinction enjoys a special meaning in our time. In pop culture, comedy often implies a position where you’re outside of things, laughing at them; whereas drama suggests empathy, identification, compassion, with no laughs to get in the way. A lot of our best pop culture fuses both, so that we can laugh at a character we do feel compassion for. And when that’s happening, the distinction is moot. But comedy, as a classification, essentially repositions the purpose of a movie. It says: That movie is there to entertain you. And, of course, it is. But our relationship to a comedy can sound like a bit of a transaction: We pay our money, and we want to laugh. We want results. Whereas a drama, when it’s great, offers something more mysterious. It’s an experience that we take with us, because there’s no guffawing human coin to measure it by.
So for anyone who’s seeing American Hustle this weekend, where do you stand on the issue? Is it a comedy? A drama? Or both? Or does it simply not matter? And what are some of the movies you’ve loved where laughter is baked right into what they do, yet they are not, in the end, comedies?