Boardwalk Empire, American Hustle, and parts versus the whole

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I&rsquo;ve been thinking a lot about HBO&rsquo;s <em>Boardwalk Empire</em> lately. It&rsquo;s a period drama set in the 1920s depicting the Prohibition era, as central protagonist Nucky Thompson controls the flow of alcohol in his native Atlantic City. He fends off other liquor bosses in Chicago, New York City, and Philadephia, striking deals for territory and fighting wars with the insistent. Colourful characters he interacts with include Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Johnny Torio, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano &mdash; familiar names if you&rsquo;ve seen any mob story. History is a spoiler in <em>Boardwalk Empire</em> &mdash; those who died in real life at the time die accordingly on the show.


<em>Boardwalk </em>is a drama I enjoy but don&rsquo;t consider among television&rsquo;s best shows. I&rsquo;m repeatedly impressed &mdash; it&rsquo;s just never reached the &ldquo;elite&rdquo; level of <em>Mad Men</em> and <em>Breaking Bad</em> &mdash; yet its identity suggests it should. It looks glamorous: the set design, hairstyling and makeup, costuming, and cinematography are exquisite. Renowned mob movie maker Martin Scorcese is an executive producer and directed the pilot. The show&rsquo;s main directors come from critical hits like <em>The Wire </em>and <em>Deadwood</em>.


The dialogue is funny and clever. The violence is impactful but never overused (&agrave; la <em>Game of Thrones</em>). Its themes are clear and episodes are tightly written to them. It&rsquo;s deeply cast and impeccably acted: major roles are played by Michael K. Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Root, and Michael Shannon &mdash; more than enough star power for a big-budget film. And leading it all is showrunner Terence Winter who was an executive producer on <em>The Sopranos</em>, one of TV&rsquo;s all-time best dramas.


I&rsquo;ve spent several paragraphs describing what sounds like a prestige television drama &mdash; just the terms &ldquo;Scorcese&rdquo; and &ldquo;mob piece&rdquo; are enough for people. Yet <em>Boardwalk </em>has never become a hit for HBO, and it&rsquo;s never reached the quality it seemingly should.


I don&rsquo;t know why it never gained mass popularity. Perhaps it was bad timing &mdash; <em>LOST, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, </em>and<em> Breaking Bad </em>ruled the year it debuted. Ratings have never improved on its first-season numbers anyway, so people lost interest or hopped onto <em>Thrones</em>. People I talk with are interested (because of the reasons outlined above), but never watch it.


On the matter of quality, while watching Season 4, I came to a revelation on why it&rsquo;s never been an elite drama for me: the storytelling stalls too much. The latter thirds are fantastic &mdash; Seasons 2 and 3 had thrilling, gory, powerful endings. The first thirds are excellent too, establishing the main antagonists, giving them fresh voices, and building alliances &mdash; note how brilliantly Jeffrey Wright&rsquo;s Dr. Narcisse was introduced. The middle third is slower, mostly transition episodes, but with enough &ldquo;moments&rdquo; to keep me entertained &mdash; and so I&rsquo;m never disappointed in it.


Mob pieces with corruption and well-dressed people tend to be an easy formula for success &mdash; the violence, wealth, alcohol, gambling, and suits exude a high-class air. This brings me to <em>American Hustle</em>, which falls under this genre. It&rsquo;s an Oscar front-runner in the film community, but my initial impression wasn&rsquo;t favourable. It took too long to reach its conclusion amidst a weak plot, so I wasn&rsquo;t enamored with it.


My peers disagree, and after giving it a lot of thought, I realized I felt precisely the same way about it as <em>Boardwalk Empire</em>. <em>Hustle</em> is entertaining from start to end, hilarious, and tremendously acted (I highlight Cooper, Adams, and Lawrence&rsquo;s performances, as well as the friendship between Bale and Renner&rsquo;s characters). <em>Hustle</em> is also thematically on-point and well-directed. That&rsquo;s usually enough for me to love a film &mdash; especially in this genre &mdash; but I couldn&rsquo;t get there with <em>Hustle</em>. Its positive elements disguised a thin and predictable plot that was needlessly long.


So I come away from <em>Boardwalk </em>and <em>Hustle</em> impressed but not satisfied, and this poses an interesting question to me: how do we feel about movies whose whole is less than the sum of its parts? If we&rsquo;re entertained from minute one to minute 130, does it matter how it felt overall?


Maybe it doesn&rsquo;t &mdash; we just want to have a good time. <em>Boardwalk </em>and <em>Hustle </em>are technically sound and undoubtedly enjoyable pieces. When it comes to picking the &ldquo;best&rdquo; though, it falls short. Because so much TV and film is produced today, the &ldquo;best&rdquo; piece is either (1) a perfect piece, (2) overwhelmingly spectacular to compensate for its flaws, or (3) an evolution in filmmaking. <em>Hustle</em> has flaws, but its middling plot is a <em>fatal</em> flaw, one that can&rsquo;t be compensated by glitzy styles.


Naturally, this is a subjective matter over all &mdash; I like great storytelling, others like pure entertainment. <em>Hustle</em> was definitely the latter, and I&rsquo;m open to debates on the former. I suppose the &ldquo;It was fun, why bother overanalyzing the plot?&rdquo; argument is acceptable, but I seek TV and film that&rsquo;s both fun <em>and</em> deeply constructed. If a piece isn&rsquo;t chasing perfection (or progression), then it becomes forgettable in a sea where risk-takers rise.


<em>Andrew Koo (@akoo) can be reached by email, but he&rsquo;d love correspondence via Owl Post.</em>
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