The Genre of Calvinball: American Hustle and the Art of Improvisation

Anyone familiar with the classics knows all about Calvinball, the game where not just the score, but the rules change constantly. Calvin tells his imaginary friend Hobbs all about the game, where the participants’ best chance at success is to embrace the chaos; until the player recognizes the insanity of the game, they won’t be able to enjoy themselves, and they won’t be able to really excel at the sport. By the time of the below episode of the cartoon, Hobbes has obviously become skilled in the art of infinite improvisation. Just like a Shark swimming or an electron flying through a hazy field, the object is to never rest and never be completely–or even partially predictable.

Calvin and Hobbs, playing Calvinball, a metaphor that speaks to much about life.

This particular episode of Calvin and Hobbes suggests some things about play that ring true, both in terms of children’s games, but also in terms of more adult spheres of competition. For one, the key strategy of both Calvin and Hobbes is to change the rules of the game, rather than simply excel at the rules. They switch allegiances, and they even switch games. You might notice this in politics and business, too–the ol’ “change the narrative” strategy. Another skill this cartoon suggests is that of persuasion. In order for Calvin to win, he must convince Hobbs of the new rules, and Hobbs must do the same to Calvin. They have to make the other person accept their reality.

In this sense, one of the key skills of Calvinball–perhaps, the central skill–is persuasion. Can you get others to accept your form of reality, and if so, for how long? Finally, there’s what you might call the Kipling rule, “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” This sentiment is most clearly expressed in the final slide, where both the boy and his tiger celebrate and immerse themselves into the craziness.

Whose Line is it Anyway?, Calvinball in TV Form

There’s any number of ways of connecting Calvinball to the adult world, but it seems to me there’s a genre of film that we might call the Calvinball genre. These are films where the rules of the game change every few scenes; sometimes, the game changes, itself. And the characters who succeed are the ones who can master persuasion, improvisation, and a celebratory love of the chaos. Calvinball plots are a crucible of shapeshifting reality, and it’s not always clear which characters will pass the test. Calvinball films sometimes have a whimsical style to them; sometimes, they are breathless in their pacing. They almost always keep the viewers guessing what just happened, or whether there is a narratological sleight of hand going on.

But Calvinball films aren’t just films with lots of plot-twists. They are films where they characters practice the traits I listed above: persuasion, improvisation, and immersion into the chaos. Some Calvinball films include, Miller’s Crossing (1990), Charade (1963), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe (1966), Sleuth (1972), Knives Out (2019), The Sting (1973), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). And if we’re reaching back into drama, the list might include The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), As You Like it (1603), and The Alchemist (1610).

Calvinball films bear similarity to confidence game films, trickster films, and films with plot-twists, but they aren’t quite the same thing. Calvinball films imply that even the trickster is subject to the whims of the game. In this sense, a film like Amelie (1999) or a play like The Tempest (1611) would not be an ideal candidate for the Calvinball genre. Films with only plot twists don’t necessarily fit into this category either. Calvinball is about the characters creating a reality, so a film like The Sixth Sense (1999) wouldn’t fit into that category. (There can be a twist ending in a Calvinball film, but the key is that the realities that are created are created by the characters forming worlds for each other.) Honestly, The Importance of Being Earnest and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are the two examples that I can think of that best fit the characteristics of the genre I’ve described.

American Hustle, a Calvinball film and a crime dramedy.

Well, that’s not quite true, there’s one more film–the David O. Russel 2013 crime drama, American Hustle (2013). This film has a star-studded cast of performers who deliver somewhat stylized, somewhat non-naturalistic performances, with multiple plot turns, and at least one big plot twist. The stylized nature of the performances is part of a larger tone of 70s melodramtic kitsch that runs throughout this film. Everything–just everything–about this film lets you know it’s a 70s film. Please know that I don’t just mean a film set in the 70s, but a film that has bathed itself in the 70s zeitgeist.

There’s the loud, tight, clothing, which doesn’t look like the kind you’d see in a movie where they are trying to make their stars look glamorous. There’s the acting, which I’m struggling to describe without using either the words stylized or non-naturalistic. What other words could do? Baroque, emphatic, embellished, or gilded could describe it. In fact, those words could also describe the costumes, the decor, the cinematography, and perhaps, most especially, the soundtrack. All of these cinematic elements wrap together to create a moment, a time-in-place; so much so, that this film borders on being a period piece. But the film invokes rather than depicts 1970s Americana. In other words, the film feels impressionistic to me–it’s trying to convey a nostalgic feeling for a moment in time.

This impressionistic period piece makes the film reminiscent of the directorial style of Martin Scorsese. The use of music establishes not just a mood, but a time in place, and the montages provide a backstory for the plot. Both of these techniques are subtly referential to the aesthetic in Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. But what really connects this film to Scorsese’s style is the use of first person narration. There are multiple narrators in American Hustle, each advancing a part of the story and reinforcing character development. Just like in Scorsese’s films, these narrations harmonize with the aforementioned cinematic techniques, especially the music and backstory montages.

You can get a sense of of the subtle melodramatic acting, the period piece feel, and the overall stylized feel from the beginning of the film.

Of special note is Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Rosalyn Rosenfeld. Her scenes with Christian Bale (her husband, Irving Rosenfeld) are electric. More than any other actor, Lawrence perfectly gauges the tone of this film. Her acting is humorous, outrageous, kitschy, and at the same time, authentic. But really, this is an ensemble effort, with performances from Bradly Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), and Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), and a cameo where Robert De Niro steals the scene as an all powerful gangster, Victor Tellegio.

The film is a fictionalized dramatization of the events around the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ABSCAM probe, wherein they rounded up, prosecuted and successfully convicted “one U.S. senator, six U.S. representatives, and numerous local officials on an assortment of bribery and corruption charges.” From the point-of-view of critics, the investigation unfairly entrapped the accused; but at the very least, the politicians rounded up demonstrated unseemly, grotesque behavior. The film presents a slightly cynical tone toward the federal investigation, questioning the motives of the investigators and the ultimate effectiveness of the convicting lifelong criminals. Mayor Polito is portrayed as an unjustly set-up patsy by an overzealous FBI agent (Richie DiMaso) and a couple con-artists (Irving and Sydney) who’ve been pinched and need the Bureau’s help to avoid prison.

You’ll get a sense of the acting, the 70s feel, and the melodramatic feel.

And that brings us back to Calvinball and the cat-and-mouse plot of American Hustle, where the investigators are investigated and the con-artists aren’t quite sure if others are working with them on-the-level. Irving and Sydney are con-artists who are in love, but Irving’s also in love with his wife, Rosalyn, even though they have a troubled marriage. So within this love triangle there’s Calvinball games, with each of the three trying to create new realities, change the rules, and improvise from scene to scene. Richie DiMaso tries to create a wedge between Irving and Sydney and by doing so, he adds another layer of Calvinball. Moreover, Irving and Sydney try to con Richie. And then, finally, Rosalyn, creates an entirely new layer of Calvinball midway through as she consorts with mafia members, creating new realities for her and everyone else in the story. Everyone creating realities and responding to the fluidly changing rules of others. The characters who thrive are those who learn to play Calvinball best.

American Hustle is a finely acted film, a bit melodramatic, but in a purposeful, artistic way, and it suggests themes of pretense, hypocrisy, and the effervescence of relationships and dreams. It’s not a five-star film, but I think it’s a solid four star one. I’d recommend it, if for no other reason than as a prime example of the Calvinball genre.

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