Movies can be made or broken by casting. One prominent example of the former is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which took limited range actors such as Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, and several others, and placed them in roles which they fit extremely well. That series of movies was a piece du resistance for the casting director, Victoria Burrows.
American Hustle, on the other hand, smacks of a casting director’s love affair with actors and actresses who just didn’t fit the roles they were given, and sadly hurt a fantastic script.
A few of the choices — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper — worked out brilliantly, resulting in some Oscar-worthy performances. Unfortunately, two other top-billed performers — Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner — were grossly miscast. Lawrence was an error of vetting, as the question, “Can you do an accent?” was clearly never asked. Renner, differently, seemed to be cast by a blind person unaware of what an Italian-American looks like. The crux of my argument is that all the actors cast in these roles were not natural to them, and those who had the chops rose to the challenge, but overall the casting was a tragic failure, spoiling a movie that could have been brilliant.
But, I have to be fair…
Who were the alternatives for this movie? Was it even made at the right time for it to be successful?
To begin, is there anyone that could’ve done what Amy Adams or Jennifer Lawrence did better? Maybe. Jessica Chastain could’ve. Maybe she was busy. I can see Rachel Weisz nailing either role, but she’s been quiet lately, not carrying the same momentum as Amy Adams. So I must give a pass to the casting director on Adams’ role, at least. But Jennifer Lawrence’s post-Oscar performance is tragic. Silver Linings Playbook took what she had to give and highlighted all the best parts of it. I still don’t think her performance should’ve won, but there’s no questioning it was good. This time, though… ouch. Just ask Kevin Costner how blowing an accent can ruin a role for you. Suspension of disbelief goes right out the window. Also, and this might be totally personal, Lawrence is too young to play a mom. There’s a list of older actresses I could see possibly taking this role to greater heights – Debra Messing, Courtney Cox (in a Tarantino-like comeback), Famke Janssen, Selma Hayek, Carla Gugino. None of them have the current cache of Lawrence, but as Gugino could tell you, having turned in an excellent performance with limited screen-time in Sin City, cache doesn’t mean shit.
What of Bale, Cooper, or Renner? Anyone better suited to their roles? I can’t imagine anyone else putting in Bale’s work, which was Oscar-worthy. I can see Matt Damon or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Cooper’s role, but I think Cooper suited it nicely. Which leaves me with Renner, who left me with a bad taste in his mouth. DiCaprio was obviously busy, and too big for such a role, but was there anyone else who had the look and the chops for it? Were chops even necessary? I think Michael Pitt could’ve pulled it off, though he’s a little young. John Hamm might’ve been even better, if they could pry him away from Madmen. Or just find any old no-name because, to make a sports analogy, Jeremy Renner is acting below replacement value in this one.
In the end, my point is that the Casting Director for American Hustle may have taken risks, but not the right kind. There’s no Tarantino move here, no rescue-job or unexpected yet perfectly fitting hire. Nor is there a Burrows job, casting relative no-names who fit the roles extremely well. There are five actors all on the Mugatu “He’s so hot right now” list and that’s a mistake. I get the sense that, with this movie, screen-testing wasn’t a thing that happened; the casting director walked into the producer’s office and said, “Lawrence is in. We got her. Renner too.” And the producers thought, “Sweet. We’re going to make money with this one.” Sadly they were right. Money wins, art loses. Same old story.
It’s too bad. This could’ve been a kick-ass film.