By now, David O. Russell has openly and repeatedly acknowledged that his 2010 film, The Fighter, represented a key artistic turning point for him. His first film after years of futility following the release of I ♥ Huckabees, the boxing drama found Russell devoting himself to the rigors of narrative storytelling. He’s basically said it was about wanting to start making movies “with heart,” the sort of vague pronouncement of an unmeasurable quantity that doesn’t really communicate anything while still feeling emotionally satisfying. I think there’s a more direct way of identifying what changed that still gets at what Russell’s trying to say: he starting giving a shit about the people on screen.
In his early features–even really good ones, like Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings–Russell holds himself at a remove from the characters, giving himself the artistic distance to judge them for their actions, mock them a little bit. He wasn’t a bully in the Lars von Trier mode, but a smart aleck in the back of the classroom signaling with snide comments that he’s too cool for anything as basely humanistic as learning and caring. It’s precisely that satiric barrier that made Huckabee so much less than the sum of its often very funny parts. Russell has flatly been a better director since making the adjustment, and it’s interesting to consider the totality of his career leading up to his latest outing, American Hustle. It has the almost screwball comic rhythms of Flirting, the political acuity of Kings and the squirrelly sprawl of Huckabees, but shaped by his newfound sensibility. It’s the best film he’s ever made, by a fairly large margin.
Based on the Abscam sting operation that took place as the nineteen-seventies slid into the eighties (with exactly the right amount of looseness to spur wild creativity), the screenplay, co-credited to Russell and Eric Warren Singer, focuses largely on relatively small-scale grifters who were enlisted to help orchestrate the undercover work in lieu of jail time. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is the owner of a small chain of dry cleaning stores whose predilection for sly underhand dealings is kicked into overdrive by the arrival in his life of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a woman working at Cosmopolitan magazine who has an almost compulsive need to reinvent herself. When they’re busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the only way out of the predicament is to assist him in setting up busts of bigger fish, a situation that quickly escalates well beyond the original agreement to involve major political figures and high-placed mobsters. With an impeccable sense of timing and scale, Russell handles his complex plot like an eternal series of splendid comic crescendos, every new development successfully adding to the tension while always feeling like a natural progression of the choices the individual characters made from the very beginning.
Russell brings a deluge of style to the film, amazingly without ever letting the garish period trappings become overwhelming. After the initial shock of the wallpaper, the clothes, the furniture and especially the hairdos (the last accentuated by Russell in the very first scene of the film) subsides, it becomes the convincing fabric of the movie. These are things the characters live with, not mere set dressing they awkwardly interact with to prove the era. This is all part of the film’s sound strategy to ground everything first and foremost in the characters, an approach that works in large part because of the focused, inventive, borderline brilliant stock company of actors Russell has started to develop. Bale and Adams were both as good as they’d ever been in The Fighter, and they’re similarly a cut above here, with Adams especially wonderful as a woman whose facade is slowly being scraped away by the pressure she’s brought on herself with her role-playing in the land of devious adventure. And no matter how rich a career she may have when it’s all over and done, it’s entirely possible that no one else will quite understand how to tap into Jennifer Lawrence’s unpredictable spitfire charm like Russell. As Irving’s wife, Lawrence bends line readings to her will, making the character damaged, crazy, sexy, crafty and sympathetic all at the same time.
Russell has taken some grief for snippets of the film that others find derivative, notably the headlong reminiscing and tandem narration in the earliest scenes, both recalling Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (and Russell loves thrusting the camera forward on characters while they’re reacting to something, a move that almost causes Scorsese’s signature to shimmer into place in the corner, like a network logo). But if we’re going to start condemning directors for drawing on the lessons of their forebears than Scorsese himself is going to have a lot to answer for in whatever courtroom is set up for those purposes. It’s not always about how entirely, unequivocally original a vision is. Instead, it’s about what a creator does with those inspirations that inform the work. If Russell seems to be pulling from everything he’s learned across all his own features to assemble American Hustle, then surely his worthy incorporation of a few techniques mastered by others is in keeping with the thrilling cumulative quality of the film. It’s not about where the spices came from, it’s how the chef uses them. With American Hustle, Russell has made something exquisitely delicious.