Appeals Court Burns Defamation Lawsuit Targeting 'American Hustle' Microwave Scene

5. American Hustle
Columbia Pictures

Speaking of getting back to basics, David O. Russell, in American Hustle and his previous two films, has done just that, making personal, madly dynamic, hugely entertaining films that at their cores are about self-reinvention and overcoming what might have been holding one back before. After his own period in the wilderness, the writer-director seems laser-focused and devoted to making social comedies in which he's able to get well-known actors to hit all sorts of new and unfamiliar notes. In a year graced by many first-rate ensemble casts, this may have the best of them.

A California appeals court is unplugging a $1 million lawsuit brought by Paul Brodeur, a former staff writer at The New Yorker, over a scene in the 2013 film, American Hustle, where defending the notion that microwaves take the nutrition out of food, Jennifer Lawrence comments, "It's not bullshit. I read it in an article. Look, by Paul Brodeur."

That comment earned Sony's Columbia Pictures and other producers a defamation lawsuit from Brodeur, who claimed that an Oscar-nominated film based on some truth (American Hustle was inspired by the FBI's ABSCAM sting of the late '70s and early '80s) had damaged his reputation by attributing him to be the source of scare-mongering about the dangers of microwaves. Surprisingly, in April 2015, Brodeur's lawsuit was given the green light by a judge over objections that viewers would understand the movie to be a "screwball comedy" where nothing Lawrence's character utters can be seriously taken as fact. The dispute then went on appeal, where it drew a friend-of-the-court brief from the MPAA, The New York Times and others.

On Monday, California appeals court justice Elizabeth Grimes came to the conclusion that Brodeur's defamation complaint is unlikely to be successful and must be stricken as an impingement of producers' First Amendment rights.

To get there, the appeals court first must find that the complained-about activity targets speech on a matter of public interest. Here, credit is conferred to the epoch that American Hustle was attempting to evoke in a farcical matter. Grimes writes that "the microwave oven scene plainly drew on an issue of public interest in the 1970s, and plaintiff was an integral part of that issue at the time" as a well-known author in the environmental field writing about the health dangers of the use of various electrical devices. 

Grimes also distinguishes this case from one that targeted the classic 1990s film Reality Bites, which triggered a lawsuit from a guy named Troy Dyer who sued over Ethan Hawke's portrayal of a slacker named Troy Dyer. "This case is nothing like Dyer," writes Grimes. "Here, plaintiff is, by his own evidence, a public figure — not a private figure like Mr. Dyer, who did nothing to insert himself into the discussion of any public topic or debate."

The appeals court then looks at the merits of the complaint and whether Brodeur can establish an untruthful statement was made that harmed his reputation.

Grimes writes that Brodeur hasn't produced admissible evidence alleging he ever took a firm position on whether microwaves take all of the nutrition out of food. The plaintiff attempted to cite a 1978 interview he gave with People Magazine where he was asked, "Is there any danger in eating food cooked by microwaves? Brodeur responded, "None that is known."

That's not good enough to establish what he really believed, nor can the Food and Drug Administration's own statements about the dangers of microwaves move the Lawrence comment into the category of being provably false. As Monday's appellate opinion puts it, "Of course the FDA document does show that, in 2015, we knew that, contrary to Rosalyn’s comment, microwave ovens do not 'take all the nutrition out of our food.' But the document says nothing about the state of understanding on that point in the 1970s, and plaintiff produced no evidence that the statement was known to be 'scientifically unsupportable' in the 1970s."

Finally, Grimes and the two justices who joined her agree with the producers that the comment in the movie isn't reasonably susceptible of defamatory meaning.

"American Hustle is, after all, a farce," states the opinion. "The stage was set at the beginning of the film. (‘Some of this actually happened,’ is the line that appears on screen to start things off, and it sets the tone perfectly.”) The character who utters the allegedly defamatory statement is portrayed throughout the movie as 'slightly unhinged' and 'a font of misinformation,' and Irving and Rosalyn both refer to the microwave oven as the 'science oven.' We doubt any audience member would perceive any of Rosalyn’s dialogue as assertions of objective fact."

In other words, the "Ditzy Defense" has actually won out!