This story first appeared in OscarWrap: Nominations Preview
There’s never been a film quite like “American Hustle.”
The bellbottoms, big hair, coke snorting and propulsive pop soundtrack evoke earlier ’70s throwbacks, like “Boogie Nights” and “Anchorman.“ And the story of crooked politicians, charming con artists and the feds who bring them together is reminiscent of caper movies like “Ocean’s Eleven.” Yet “American Hustle” still defies all expectations — it’s funny and tragic, often at the same moment, and a masterpiece of shifting moods.
The movie serves as a coda in a trilogy of reinvention for director David O. Russell, whose last two works, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” together scored 15 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture for both) and won three Oscars for acting. “I want to do movies that are rooted in characters and that are based on their emotional lives and their struggles for survival and desire for reinvention,” Russell told TheWrap. “This theme of reinvention is what leapt out at me. It’s very American.”
That American theme binds the trilogy together, even though the films seem wildly different on the surface. “The Fighter” is an inspirational boxing movie with vivid and often comic characters. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a charming romantic comedy, with drops of pathos mixed in to leaven the uplift. And “American Hustle” riffs on the crime genre, dramatizing one of the most bizarre moments in law-enforcement history: the Abscam operation in which FBI employees posed as Arab sheiks in an effort to catch public officials on the take.
But though the settings and styles are different, reinvention and redemption are there in “The Fighter’s” Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) as he struggles to control drug addiction and help guide his brother to a boxing title. They’re in “Silver Linings Playbook’s” Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) as he battles mental illness and attempts to win back his ex-wife. And they can be found in “American Hustle’s” Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a con man who discovers his moral compass while his life collapses around him.
“These are basic people,” Russell said. “They’re a lot like relatives of mine who live in the New York area and work at airports or at various jobs, and they’re just salt of the earth. Their stories come from a place that is emotional and real, and when I found myself opening up to their struggles, it felt like the thing I needed to do with the rest of my career. All my work had just been leading up and preparing me to make these films.”
It’s easy to see why the theme of reinvention resonates with Russell, who narrowly avoided becoming a cautionary tale in a business that isn’t big on second chances. After being hailed as one of his generation’s brightest talents with such audacious films as “Spanking the Monkey,” “Flirting With Disaster” and “Three Kings,” Russell stumbled with the philosophical comedy “I Heart Huckabees,” a box-office and critical disappointment in 2004. YouTube footage of him screaming at “Huckabees” star Lily Tomlin and reports of an on-set scuffle with “Three Kings” actor George Clooney damaged his reputation, and he struggled for several years to get projects off the ground. He was forced to abandon one, the political comedy “Nailed,” before filming was completed.
That all changed in 2010 with “The Fighter.” Russell said he has drawn lessons from his ordeal. “It taught me to come at things from instinct and not to overthink them,” he said. “It was the most frustrating thing, not knowing what stories to tell. But it helped me learn to dial in to humanity, to trust my characters and to find magic in their lives and struggles.”
“American Hustle” producer Jonathan Gordon, who collaborated with the director on “Three Kings” and “Flirting With Disaster,” said that Russell’s new attitude shows in his characters. “He knew he had to pour all his heart and soul and everything into “The Fighter.” That’s become how he approaches making movies and how he treats his characters. Everything is life-and-death stakes.”
Russell’s second act has been aided by a repertory company of sorts. Of the five leads in “Hustle,” four had previously worked with him: Bale, Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams. (All four were Oscar- nominated for Russell films, and Bale and Lawrence won.) “There’s a nice spontaneity and rawness to David,” Bale told TheWrap. “You don’t always agree, but whether you agree or disagree, there’s always sincerity.”
Just as the characters in “Hustle” don and discard personas and shift identities in an effort to become the people they always wished they could be, Russell allows his actors to defy their past roles and reinvent themselves. Few would have thought of Adams, best known for playing a princess in “Enchanted,“ for the part of the salty bartender in “The Fighter” or the sexually manipulative grifter in “Hustle.” “He saw a ferocity in me that other people didn’t, and that can be hard to show people if they don’t let you,” Adams said. “He trusts you.”
Part of the attraction for actors is the loose atmosphere Russell fosters as he shoots scenes with 360-degree lighting and on steadicams so he can capture the actors’ improvisations and embellishments. “I find it exciting for audiences and for me and for my actors to let them take risks,” said Russell, who can frequently be found just outside the camera’s range lobbing new lines to the cast.
The principal cast’s one newcomer to the Russell method admits he had to adjust to Russell’s freewheeling approach. “I enjoy spontaneity, but it didn’t always work too well for me,” Jeremy Renner told TheWrap. “I remember this moment where I was crammed into the back of this limo, my foot literally on David’s forehead, and he was lying between my legs screaming up lines at me. It was all I could do to keep from laughing.”
On a Russell movie, a script is just a sketch. When the writer-director first got Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay, it unfolded as a procedural. But after a rewrite, the particulars of the FBI’s Abscam sting became secondary to the blue-collar surroundings of the people caught up in it.
And that flexibility extended to shooting, with actors often finding their characters and redrafting pivotal moments as the cameras were rolling. “If you show up on set and just do the scene as written, you’re not going to have a long shelf life on a David O. Russell film,” Cooper told TheWrap. “You have to be willing to have everything change.”
That was the impetus for what may be “Hustle’s” funniest and most memorable scene, one that finds Lawrence’s frustrated housewife belting Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” as she furiously cleans. “That was all David,” Lawrence remembered. “He came to my room one night and said, ‘I have this vision of you in yellow cleaning gloves, dancing around.'”
While “Hustle” has some unhinged, wild scenes as over-the-top as anything in Russell’s filmography, those who have worked with him in the past say that the mercurial filmmaker is much more stable creatively and professionally than he was earlier in his career. “He is a workaholic, and he is in such a great place creatively and is surrounding himself with people that he feels comfortable with,” Richard Suckle, a producer on the film, told TheWrap. “He is on such a roll that I don’t think he wants to stop. He’s finding so many stories to tell, and right now he’s hitting this incredible stride thematically.”
Although based on a handful of real people and their crimes and indiscretions, “Hustle” pulsates with a different reality. It is infused, long-time collaborators such as Gordon and producer Charles Roven say, with Russell’s personal history growing up in New York City, surrounded by the kind of brazen, voluble dreamers and ragers who populate his last three films, searching for the kind of redemption and reinvention that the director may have found in his own life.
“The thing I love about his movies is he creates these real worlds filled with real people, and so much of that comes from the world of his family and his neighbors in Brooklyn and the Bronx,” Gordon said. “It’s in the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the music they love. You know, David said to me, ‘I spent the first half of my life walking around being embarrassed by my relatives, until I woke up and realized what a treasure trove of stories they had to tell.'”