David O. Russell is a very funny man.
That’s been easy to forget lately. The last time it feels like he made a full-on comedy was “I Heart Huckabees,” and I still remember walking out of the first screening of the film, big smile on my face, only to run smack dab into a cluster of journalists all angrily venting about the film. They didn’t just dislike it, they were furious at having seen it. One in particular was red-faced about it, and when I tried to walk by, they tried to rope me into agreeing with them about how terrible it was.
“I really liked it,” I said, and it was as if I told them that their mothers never really loved them. They recoiled from me. It only made me love the film more, and it certainly wasn’t the first time liking a David O. Russell film made people seem irritated or creeped out. “Spanking The Monkey” did exactly what it set out to do at a time when people hadn’t been conditioned by an entire culture of squirm-based comedy, and “Flirting With Disaster” felt like he just found a slightly less overt way to push buttons. “Three Kings” was a near-perfect distillation of his voice in a mainstream package, a movie that managed to be political and wicked funny and tense and moving all at the same time.
“Huckabees” may have stopped him cold for six years, but he came back with a very different voice with “The Fighter,” and it seemed to reinvent him and reinvigorate him as well. Last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” was as close as Russell will ever get to making a routine romantic comedy, although I think the film’s portrait of how to grapple with anger is what really makes it special. Both films got him invited to the Oscars, and now there’s that expectation that the films he makes are positioned as “Oscar movies,” whatever that is. Expectation be damned, though, because while I think his new film “American Hustle” is positively brimming over with things to love, it doesn’t feel to me like something calculated to win awards. It’s way too funny for that, and that aggressive, nonstop sense of humor is what makes this feel like a return to the exact thing that made me like Russell as a filmmaker in the first place. Keep in mind, I’m enormously fond of both “Fighter” and “Playbook,” but “American Hustle” is “Three Kings” funny, and that is a welcome surprise, indeed.
ABSCAM was, for those not alive when it happened, huge news at the time, part of the country’s disillusionment with anyone who held public office. The idea of actually seeing Congressmen and Senators on videotape accepting bribes was mind-blowing, and there was a healthy sense of outrage as new details kept coming to light. While “American Hustle” doesn’t tell the “true” story, Russell and co-writer Eric Singer have used the general details of the events to whip up a truly hilarious look at a bunch of dreamers and con artists all lying each other into a lather, and it’s a raucous entertainment.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a low-level scam artist as the film opens, and the first image we see of him in the film is standing in front of a mirror, building himself a head of hair. He greets the world with a lie every day, and it’s amazing to see just how elaborate it is. It involves glue and spray paint and hair that seems to be produced from some alternate dimension. It’s not about insecurity, though. Instead, it’s war paint. Irving knows what he wants, and he knows how to go out and get it. And part of the reason for his success is because he aims low. He knows that as long as he never stirs up too much trouble, he should be able to stay ahead of things.
And then he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
Sydney is just as innate a con artist as Irving, and the two of them together are able to create a sort of fantasy world that has a gravity to it, drawing in the easy marks that are their bread and butter. The film is giddy fun during their early days working together, and there’s never a question that it’s more than professional. Irving is flattened by this gorgeous redheaded shark, and she is taken with his confidence and his sense of self-preservation. They recognize something in one another, and they can’t help but get lost in one another.
Irving’s married, though, and his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is a giant personality, a carnival ride with giant hair. They have a son together, and Irving’s crazy about his boy, and because of that, he can’t imagine leaving Rosalyn. It sets up the one tension in his relationship with Sydney, and when they make their first mistake, they both step into a trap laid out by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), putting them into an awful position. They are told that they’re going to have to roll over on some other people and help the FBI make three busts if they hope to escape prosecution. Suddenly, their cons aren’t about getting rich, but the only way they’re going to end up free.
The film is not a political thriller, and it doesn’t particularly care about the politics of the people who are eventually trapped in the sting that Richie, Irving and Sydney come up with. Instead, the film is more interested in the relationships that allow people to believe the lies they want to believe, and it works beautifully as a character piece. That’s what makes it so funny, the way each of these actors cut loose as they bring these characters to life. For me, Amy Adams is “American Hustle,” and it is just one more recent display of just what a monster of an actor she is. Adams is great at snapping in and out of the various roles that Sydney plays during the film, and when she gets hurt or when she gets angry, she wears her inner turmoil right there, impossible to miss, raw and larger than life. I am flat out amazed by Adams at this point. Who else is playing the range of what she’s playing these days? How many actors can play the fluffy mainstream sunshiny musical lead in a movie like “The Muppets” and then turn around and jack off Philip Seymour Hoffman into a mirror in “The Master” as she asserts herself as the alpha wolf? “Man Of Steel,” “Her,” and this film all in one year? That’s incredible, and in all three films, she does above and beyond work to bring these characters to life.
It’s interesting that coming off of “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell cast both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the film, but without either of them being cast as a lead. Cooper seems positively giddy about playing Richie DiMaso, and he’s one of those guys who has dreams of grandeur. He’s sure that he just needs the one opportunity to prove himself, and when he gets the slightest smell of something that might be used to climb the ladder of success, he goes nuts. He goes after it with everything he’s got, and he loses himself in it all. Lawrence has the sort of role where she can’t possibly go too big, and she makes Rosalyn this wonderful, fragile, unfettered woman who is too high strung for this world, and at least part of her cloud of general anxiety comes from the fear that her husband is going to leave her. She uses her child as a weapon, and she is naked about the way she manipulates her husband. She should be despicable, except Jennifer Lawrence is the one playing her, and she ends up giving Rosalyn this strange and mesmerizing spirit that you can’t stop watching.
Of the two films Christian Bale starred in this year, this one’s by far the better performance. I found myself rooting for Irving all the way through. He may be a crook, but he’s an honest crook. When he gets cornered into helping Richie, he knows right away that he’s tempting fate. He isn’t used to being cornered, and I love watching him struggle to get what he wants in the end. I think he’s enormously sympathetic, and the physical transformation between this and “Out Of The Furnace” is incomprehensible, no matter which one of them shot first. I find Irving sympathetic because I feel like this guy sometimes. I feel like I’m just barely staying ahead of my own bullshit, and from the first time we see him combing over that crazy mop on his head to his final scene with Jeremy Renner, there’s something wounded and beautiful about the work he does.
The entire supporting cast comes out swinging, and they have all sorts of memorable moments. Jeremy Renner puts a human face on the guilty men of ABSCAM, Louis CK has an endlessly funny supervisor/agent relationship with Cooper’s character, Shea Whigham shows up with hair so crazy he looks like he just shot a cameo in a “Fifth Element” sequel, and Elisabeth Röhm is gloriously unrecognizable as Renner’s wife. Russell sets this tone with the script and with his own energy onscreen that permeates the whole film, and everyone in the film seems to get that tone exactly.
This is another of the films this year (like “Her”) that wouldn’t exist if not for Anapurna Pictures and producer Megan Ellison. She’s one of many on the film, including Charles Roven and Richard Suckle, and I feel like she’s made it her life’s work to underwrite the art of the Class of ’99, between Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, and Paul Thomas Anderson. That is a noble use of money, and I hope this one’s a big fat hit for that exact reason. It should be. People get worried sometimes that the end-of-the-year films are a drag, that they’ll feel like homework. Nothing could be further from the truth with this one. I laughed my way through most of it, and it’s smart stuff. There is something familiar about the overall shape of the movie, and I wonder what you’d call this genre of movie. Things like “Boogie Nights” and “Good Fellas” and “Casino” and “Blow” are told in a certain rise and fall seduction-and-meltdown dance, and it’s obvious that cinematographer Linus Sandgren has seen all the right movies. It’s a little too familiar, perhaps, and while everyone seems to be having a blast wearing the crazy ’70s hair and the crazy ’70s clothes, and why not? That familiarity is what holds me back from loving this with wild abandon. We’ve seen this type of film before, and so the energy here and the cast has to be enough to carry things, since we aren’t really covering any new ground thematically or narratively.
While I’m not sure I think it’ll quite crack my personal top ten list, “American Hustle” made me laugh more than many of the “comedies” I saw this year, and I did find myself ultimately affected by the raw and angry love shared by Irving and Sydney. Again… I cannot say enough good things about the work that Adams does here. Her emotional weather is the storm every other character is caught in. She makes Bale a better version of himself. She makes Cooper believe he’s the Alpha Male. She makes Lawrence crazy until she makes her see the truth. She sells it to Renner. She is the spider at the center of the web, and she does it perfectly. When she’s hurt, everyone else gets hurt. When she’s happy, it’s nothing but roses. The only one who doesn’t seem impressed is Rosalyn, and when Rosalyn and Sydney meet face to face, it’s one of the best moments in a movie this year.
“American Hustle” is in theaters December 13, 2013.