A populist confection with ambitions to high art. A hodgepodge whose messiness has generated both raves and criticism. A colorful throwback that is also surprisingly modern and relevant. David O. Russell's "American Hustle" is a series of entertaining if at times frustrating contradictions, an idiosyncratic piece of work that has nonetheless managed to succeed in the marketplace.
A movie, in other words, much like its creator.
Russell is, by many of the high standards the term implies, a cinematic master, capable of juggling tones like few others and creating movies about meaty subjects to boot. Movies like "American Hustle" are a triumph because in so many regards — aesthetic, actorly, their sheer outrageousness quotient — they represent what's possible, not just what's accepted, blending caper and character (not to mention zany hairstyles). They stand out because directors like Russell managed to devise memorable art in a medium that requires the approval and dollars of others.
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Russell does this, as conversations with him and many more than a dozen of his collaborators from the 20 years since he made his debut with "Spanking the Monkey" suggest, by being attentive to detail, by being passionate, by being single-minded. He leaves no character or narrative stone unturned and fights for choices when many would have long put down their weapons.
He also does this by being difficult, by being blunt, "by being David," an oddly telling description of his mix of traits. On a day when Hollywood crowns its best, Russell — nominated for best director and screenplay for the second straight year — remains one of the great characters working within, and sometimes struggling against, a largely corporate system.
That 'Fighter' spirit
The first time I met Russell was in 2010, on the eve of the release of "The Fighter." He was nervous, sitting down to dinner with Mark Wahlberg in a Manhattan restaurant. "The Fighter" was his first completed movie in six years. (The last one was "I Heart Huckabees," so you can imagine why.) Over the course of the conversation, Russell's better angels (attentiveness, a willingness to reflect on his life) collided with his lesser ones (a coiled intensity and hypersensitivity, parsing, as he does, questions he thinks may be off-base or offensive).
I saw him a few more times over the course of that season, his confidence growing as his stock rose. In 2012, I met him at a Toronto International Film Festival party after the "Silver Linings Playbook" premiere. The movie had played like gangbusters, and Russell was reveling in the moment, inviting me to sit with him and chat about the film over a few drinks. He talked exuberantly about making the film, manifesting a passion so strong he — unlike 90% of directors I've encountered — was still feeling it months after he finished the movie. He wanted to talk, talk and talk about it some more. The conversation ended an hour later only when I had to excuse myself for another event.
I spoke with Russell six or seven more times throughout that season, as he touchingly expressed how his son's emotional difficulties had prompted him to make this movie. Bradley Cooper, the film's star, told me that the director wears his "heart on his sleeve," and this was the best expression of that trait.
Last December, for the third installment in his so-called reinvention trilogy, I spent five hours at Russell's home away from home, an estate-cum-editing facility in Mount Olympus, high above Hollywood. Those five hours were not, it should be said, all spent with Russell. Three of them were spent waiting for him; the director was late, and then some, for our interview. During the wait, more than one person in the house endearingly referred to "D.T.," David Time. He would later explain it as the behavior of a man so focused on the task in front of him he had a hard time imagining other ones, even if those were ironclad obligations. A publicist who had worked with Russell had a different take when I told her what happened. "Three hours? That's good for David."
Talking with him is a unique experience. The conversation does not always follow a defined track. Some who have engaged with this professionally have called it chaotic and been thwarted by it. Collaborators on two different movies compared it to jazz, the mathematic structure by which most directors lay out their movie, in his case heaved out the window for something more free form.
Russell’s on-set behavior is similarly from the gut, its plan not always apparent, though many who’ve worked closely with him say that one shouldn’t be fooled; he knows exactly what he wants out of a scene. He will have the camera aim at where he feels it needs to go in the moment, instead of shooting an industry-standard progression of takes. (Russell lights the whole set, giving the actors freedom to move.) As he is in life, there is an almost obsessive attention to detail — he will arrange the chair you are sitting in to suit what he thinks the conversation requires — and, on set, memorize the script beat by beat so he can recite it back to any member of the crew at any moment, a move that has proved scary, though no doubt useful in making sense of the chaos.
He will also never sit behind the monitors, standing next to actors and talking between and over their lines, urging them on with new lines he's improvised even as the cameras are rolling.
This coming at actors, exposing them to his own infinite-possibility map moment after moment, scene after scene, can be imposing. Some, like Cooper and Amy Adams, have told me they love it; it keeps them off-balance and constantly seeking new character dimensions. "With a lot of directors you draw a map of the character and then work within that," Adams said. "With David I could draw a map of the character and then he'd say, 'you're not even in the right universe.'" Others, like Melissa Leo, have said they have a harder time with it.
The narrative on Russell is that he's a changed man from the at-once hotheaded and over-deliberate first decade of his career. The man who famously got into a fistfight with George Clooney on the set of "Three Kings," who achieved YouTube ignominy after throwing a tantrum (and other things) in the direction of Lily Tomlin making "I Heart Huckabees," who conducted such a busy internal monologue on his film choices that Wahlberg once sat him down for a life intervention of sorts, he's — well — changed.
Certainly, with three films since 2010, Russell had cast aside the mental gnaw that has inhibited productivity. And Tomlin, at least, told me last year that she had buried the hatchet and would gladly work with Russell again. He is, by all appearances, a little wiser and a little more willing to look at love and romance in his work itself.
But in other ways he remains who he is. He can still be prone to anger over small things. (Key to dealing with that, one producer said, is realizing "that the subject of that anxiety is not the source of that anxiety.") A stubborn sense of control has not gone away. Told on one recent film he needed to cut pages for the film to be shot in the time budgeted, he refused and simply shot much faster than most people would have.
Certainly Russell's vision is best served when he is given wider berth, and he now has either the freedom or the sense to make sure that happens. He has answered on these last three films to less traditional entities — Relativity Media, the Weinstein Co., Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures — not make-it-by-the-book studios. (As this article was being finished, Russell dropped out of a project at Disney-owned ABC.)
When he was commissioned by Sony Pictures in the frothy aftermath of "The Fighter" to take a crack at the script for the video-game adaptation "Drake's Fortune," Russell spent a year working on it, crafting an international epic about a family of thieves that had little to do with the game and its solitary quest. He turned it in with high hopes, but Sony executives did not like the script, which clocked in at more than 150 pages and eschewed the conventional action-thriller they wanted. The director held his ground. So did Sony, and the project went away.
Was the filmmaker being childishly unreasonable or admirably artistic? As with so many things Russell, it depends on how you look at him.