As you read this, David O. Russell's new movie "American Hustle" is, like that giant vat of caloric popcorn, going down at a theater near you. In fact it's going down at 2,507 theaters near someone, a remarkable number for a man who makes wry sideways romps.
Just a year ago Russell had a different film playing in multiplexes around the holiday season. But it was playing a lot more sparsely: "Silver Linings Playbook," Russell's mental-health-dramedy slash-dancing-dramedy-slash-romantic-comedy, was in just a few hundred theaters, the product of a Weinstein Co. rollout so slow it made molasses seem like a fast-spraying liquid. (The film took a full two months to reach the wide release "American Hustle" is at now, and earned the bulk of its sizable $132 million well beyond those first early weeks.)
"American Hustle," on the other hand, is going very wide very quickly--those large numbers of theaters are being called upon in just the film's second weekend of release--in part because it's coming out from the bigger studio machine of Sony and in part because its story of cons and criminals more easily falls into a distinct American genre (even though all Russell films really just fall into the genre of Russellalia).
"Silver Linings" was a slow-burn phenomenon of the kind you don't see much anymore, a movie that chugs along attracting a small but steady fan base until it becomes a big and impressive blockbuster. It never topped $13 million on any one weekend, but took in at least $5 million eight weeks in a row, the streak ending an astonishing four months into its run. It was a testament to the power of word-of-mouth recommendation, and an antidote to beat-you-into-submission-for-a week marketing success that is the modern movie blockbuster.
With its story of hair-obsessed con men and FBI agents, colorful housewives and genuine romance, "American Hustle" has the indelible wackiness to be a word-of-mouth phenomenon too. But the release strategy is for something more conventional: a movie that is seemingly everywhere at once and hopes to attract a whole bunch of people right at the start.
Can it work? The projections thus far this weekend are for a film that will take in between $17 million and $20 million. That's not "Anchorman 2" numbers, but it's not that far off either--just about $10 million shy, if projections hold, for a movie that hasn't the shock-and-awe campaign of Ron Burgundy and the "Anchorman" crew. ("Hustle" has had a big marketing push, but it's unlikely you'll see the movie's toupeed Christian Bale--seen affixing said piece in a strikingly unusual opening scene--hawking Dodge Durangos anytime soon.)
"Hustle's best Russell-esque eference point might be "The Fighter," the 2010 Mark Wahlberg-Christian Bale boxing film that marks the first of the director's unofficial redemption trilogy. That movie also went wide on its second weekend, and went on to become a solid hit with $83 million.
Despite its unusual tone, the new film does boast Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, even bigger stars than they were this time last year (Lawrence especially giving a boost after all the "Hunger Games" woo over the past month) and certainly bigger than Wahlberg and Bale were in 2010. It also sports the kind of made-for-advertising visuals that gets people to take notice. And early sampling suggests they have: Last weekend during the film's six-theater dry run, the movie averaged $123,000 million in sales, the best average for a release of that scale this year.
On the other hand, "American Hustle" hardly moves like a conventional con movie, and the off-wall-ness of the film's period and tone could, at least initially, throw some staid filmgoers, more so than "The Fighter," whose boxing-movie packaging made it a clearer sell.
Whether "Hustle" can follow in "The Fighter's" footsteps will establish what kind of movie "Hustle" is--one that thanks to stars and antic tone has serious mass appeal, or something more rarefied and niche, a cinephile's pleasure befitting its critical and award-season plaudits.
But the stakes are more than just a matter whether a director can match his recent successes. They go to the question of how deep the appetite for smarter entertainment is, and how much Hollywood feels it should produce for us in the first place.
After all, this is a time of year when adult filmgoers go to the movies in droves, and a time when critics are paying attention and making careful recommendations. Perhaps no movie is better for a test of this sort--Russell's work brims with weirdness and ideas, but it's also fun and relatable. If it performs well, "Hustle" can show as strongly as any film out there that movies don't need massive explosions and relentless TV commercials to be popular, just quality filmmaking and a little hair glue.