American Hustle - * * * *
Updated on 1/28/14
With American Hustle, writer/director David O. Russell cements his stature as one of the best filmmakers working today. Many critics and fans have commented on Hustle being Russell's third perfect film in a row, after Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter (which I still haven't seen -- I know, shame on me). But it was The Fighter that started this momentum for Russell as a director whose films started winning big awards:
- The Fighter was nominated for seven awards, with Christian Bale winning for Best Actor and Melissa Leo for Best Supporting Actress.
- Silver Linings Playbook received eight nominations, earning a Best Supporting Actress award for Jennifer Lawrence. (It was also Russell's first movie to break $100 million at the box office.)
- And now, American Hustle continues Russell's streak with 10 Academy Award Nominations. I think it will most likely win a few of these awards, and has a good shot at Best Picture.
In many ways, it seems like Russell came out of nowhere, but he's actually been
quietly directing films for 20 years. In Hollywood, he developed a reputation as a talented director whose methods often created chaos on the set. During production of Three Kings, Russell got into a fist fight with George Clooney. Lily Tomlin got into a expletive filled shouting match during the filming of I Heart Huckabees. And James Caan walked away from production of Nailed. An article in the New York Times chronicled some of the craziness during production of I Heart Huckabees.
And somehow, Russell emerged from this period of creative chaos. For me, Silver Linings Playbook was the film that showed that Russell was a kind of modern-day Woody Allen, who has an ability to tell serious, sometimes dark stories that also manage to be uplifting. Silver Linings Playbook's exploration of mental illness in its many forms really surprised me, as did the performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
American Hustle reunites many of the players from Russell's past three films, including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Robert De Niro. The newcomer here is Jeremy Renner. Every actor except Renner and De Niro got Oscar nods, and they all deserve the accolades they're getting.
But even with all the individual accomplishments, the real power of the film is created by the ensemble. Russell creates a kind of Woody Allen meets Martin Scorsese ensemble that gains more and more momentum as the film progresses. Everyone is amazing, but Amy Adams was perhaps the most surprising. Maybe it's because I haven't seen her in a role like this before. My money's on her for the Oscar.
From a pure filmmaking perspective, I was enthralled by how effortless Russell shows the conflicts on the screen. As the title suggests, American Hustle is about people who are trying to lie and cheat their way to a better life:
- In the very first scene, we see Christian Bale as a bald, overweight man, who spends an inordinate amount of time creating the "look" of his hair. He glues down a wig on the top of his head, and then combs over the rest, finishing with a flourish of hairspray to keep everything in place. He transforms into the man he wants others to see, but it's an illusion.
- Amy Adams acquires a British accent to become more believable to the people she and Bale are trying to scam. And there's a point where she continues to speak in that accent, even when you think she should have dropped it.
- Bradley Cooper isn't content to follow the rules at the FBI. The kind of glory he's seeking requires a kind of madness and hubris. (In a nice parallel to Bale's character, Cooper uses rollers to curl his straight hair.)
- Jennifer Lawrence's character is following a template for her life that others have set -- and it's this template that causes great unhappiness to her and everyone around her.
- Jeremy Renner (sporting an amazing pompadour) is a politician who believes corruption is OK if it helps his constituents.
This is the kind of film that stays with you, because the characters are all going through heart-wrenching internal and external battles. This is what great drama looks like, and I can't wait to see Russell's next film.