A few years ago, I was working as an assistant to a talent and literary manager at a powerhouse firm on the Sunset Strip. On any given day, I might have a brush with one of the world’s most famous faces, or listen in on a phone pitch for a project that would eventually come to dominate the cultural conversation. The experience was like being directly plugged into the erratic industry rhythms that fuel those breathless Deadline Hollywood headlines, but my omniscience extended only as far as my particular wing of the office. Just down the hall, there existed an impenetrable veil of secrets in the form of the production company that shared office space with us– Atlas Entertainment. Led by veteran producer Charles Roven, this small outfit of hungry and ambitious development executives was busy putting together some of the biggest and most high-profile projects in town– when I worked there, for instance, they were actively prepping and shooting the epic capper to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012). Despite the script being on a file on a physical computer only a few yards away from me, the exchange of information was so totally blocked at that corporate border that the script might as well have been stored away in a vault at Fort Knox.
I mention this little bit of personal history because during this time, they were also prepping another film that would dominate the cinematic landscape of its time: director David O. Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). Roven and Russell had collaborated once before, on 1999’s THREE KINGS, and their paths were crossing again now that Russell had ascended to the plane of sustained awards circuit prestige. His strengths with dynamic characterization no doubt seemed an ideal fit with Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay, which had scored highly during its time on the prestigious Black List under the title “American Bullshit”. Singer structured the story as a relatively straightforward procedural about the FBI’s ABSCAM operation in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, a sprawling sting that targeted corrupt politicians and businessmen by posing as a fake Arabian financial company willing to exchange cash for political favor. To say Russell “fictionalized” his credited rewrite upon coming aboard is, to put it mildly, a bit of an understatement– he fully applied his creative license to reinvent real-life figures into exaggerated cinematic versions that unabashedly flirt with caricature (1). It’s an indulgent move, to be sure, but if there was ever a more appropriate film to indulge, it’s AMERICAN HUSTLE: the 24-carat gold-encrusted capstone to Russell’s loose-hewn prestige trilogy about, in his words, “ordinary people living passionately” (2).
It would take no less than four producers– Roven, Richard Suckle, Jonathan Gordon, and Annapurna’s Megan Ellison– to help Russell realize his vision: a sprawling, campy crime chronicle in the spirit of Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990) or CASINO (1995). Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking AMERICAN HUSTLE belongs to Scorsese’s own canon– Russell takes the venerated auteur’s influence that has run like a simmering undercurrent beneath his films and embraces it full-bore here. The overall effect, as FilmDrunk writer Vince Mancini put it most aptly in his review, is “punk rock Scorsese”. While it does illustrate Russell’s favor of character over story, the GOODFELLAS-style multi-character voiceover technique does little to bring crystal clarity to Russell’s convoluted plot about two cons roped into an over-complicated FBI sting targeting corrupt politicians in the late 70’s. Thankfully, it’s easy enough to simply lose oneself in the decadent performances of his cast, which combines key performers from THE FIGHTER (Christian Bale & Amy Adams) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, & Robert DeNiro) to formalize the roster of Russell’s repertory ensemble. In his second collaboration with Russell, Christian Bale reinforces his reputation as an actor willing to utterly transform himself by doing a complete 180 from his dramatic weight loss on THE FIGHTER. To embody the role of Irving Rosenfeld, a sleazy conman masquerading as a legitimate businessman, Bale atrophies into a proto-Trump with an impressive beer gut and a gnarly combover atop his bald dome. AMERICAN HUSTLE is ostensibly told through his point of view, detailing his meeting and subsequent romance and scam-empire building with Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a fiery redhead with a killer fake British accent and a ferocious confidence externalized by her wardrobe of blouses with tumbling cleavage. She’s the polar opposite of Irving’s unstable lush of a wife, Rosalyn, played with such gusto and reckless abandon by Jennifer Lawrence that we can overlook the gut feeling that she’s probably a touch too young for what the character demands. Bradley Cooper threatens to the steal the whole show as the tempestuously unhinged FBI agent with a glorious perm, Richie DiMaso. A bubbling cauldron of cocksure swagger, impotent rage, and raw vulnerability, DiMaso is the catalyzing force that ropes Irving and Sydney into the sting operation that ultimately busts Jeremy Renner’s impeccably-coiffed Mayor Polito– a family-centric “man of the people” whose inherent naïveté gets him unwittingly embroiled in corruption charges that rock his beloved community of Camden, New Jersey.
The strength of Russell’s core cast is matched by the eclecticism of his supporting ensemble, which boasts the likes of legendary silver screen performers and popular character actors alike. Known primarily for his standup comedy and his eponymous television show on FX, Louis CK doesn’t stray terribly far from his idiosyncratic shtick as Stoddard Thorsen, a disgruntled FBI desk jockey and a bureaucratic foil to DiMaso’s struggle to assert control of his operation. The ever-reliable Shea Whigham plays Carl Elway, the sleazy aide to Mayor Polito and a key enabler of his unwitting spiral into corruption. BOARDWALK EMPIRE star Jack Huston ably inhabits a character who, through his burgeoning affair with Mrs. Rosenfeld, not only becomes an agent of Irving’s downfall but a catalyst for Rosalyn’s own self-realization and empowerment. In one of AMERICAN HUSTLE’s more comical twists, Michael Pena plays an undercover agent of Mexican descent who, thanks to the racial ignorance of his white superiors, is forced to pass as a member of Saudi royalty. Finally, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK’s Robert DeNiro surprises the audience with an uncredited, near-unrecognizable cameo as a Floridian mob enforcer.
AMERICAN HUSTLE continues the grounded, visceral aesthetic that marked both THE FIGHTER and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, employing a dynamic steadicam-based approach to camerawork that makes for Russell’s most visually-ambitious film since THREE KINGS (1999). Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren infuse the 2.35:1 35mm film image with a tempered color palette of golds, burgundies and royal blues that perfectly captures returning production designer Judy Becker’s indulgent and playfully-campy recreation of the 1970’s. Indeed, Russell’s vision eschews the gritty, realistic approach that marked THE FIGHTER’s depiction of the early 1990’s in favor of something resembling a carnival of flamboyant costumes, as if the story was unfolding under a pair of invisible quotation marks; a degree of separation from the assumption of reality. It’s clear that everyone is having the time of their lives making this film, with electric performances and restless camerawork working in harmony with a dynamite soundtrack of 70’s rock, big band, jazz, and disco cues to give the audience a Scorsese-style contact high. Danny Elfman returns as AMERICAN HUSTLE’s credited composer, but his score is quickly and completely drowned out by overpowering needledrops from artists like Crosby Still Nash & Young, Duke Ellington, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Santana, and Paul McCartney.
AMERICAN HUSTLE marks the culmination of several key aspects of Russell’s filmography, like a distinctly East-Coast mentality and the exploration of combative family dynamics. The evolution of his visceral style reaches its zenith here, making for an exhilarating (if not exactly coherent) viewing experience that cements his bid as Scorsese’s heir apparent. Never has Russell been more palpably confident in his abilities than AMERICAN HUSTLE, emboldened by the twin successes of THE FIGHTER and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK to push himself even further. It’s easily the most “alive” of his films, never losing sight of character even if his plot gets tangled in the weeds of his vibrant, sprawling scope. That clarity of vision and full-throated embrace of narrative chaos enabled AMERICAN HUSTLE to push through its very legitimate criticisms to become a critical and box office success when it was released in 2013 at the height of awards season. Its recognition at the Oscars reflected the impressively overwhelming nature of Russell’s vision, netting no less than 10 nods in major categories including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Russell’s own third consecutive nomination for Best Director. However, its ultimate haul — zero — reflects the profound (and intentional) emptiness beneath AMERICAN HUSTLE’s glitzy veneer, giving it a distinction it shares with the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT (2010) and Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) of being the second-most nominated film without a single win.
For all intents and purposes, it seems Russell had applied the lessons learned throughout his rocky, erratic career to ascend to the top of his field, in the process becoming one of our most prominent contemporary directors. Indeed, AMERICAN HUSTLE finds Russell at the undisputable apex of his filmography so far, his well-documented tendency for self-destruction seemingly having gone into remission. However, the key word in that sentence is “seemingly”– just as his consecutive successes since 2010 emboldened him as an artist towards ever-loftier heights, so too did it encourage a sense of complacency. The spectre of the tyrant director that nearly derailed THREE KINGS and I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) reportedly materialized once again on AMERICAN HUSTLE, if stories from the set describing Russell driving Adams to tears on a daily basis are to be believed. Even if such stories are untrue, all signs point to the notion that Russell’s hot streak was over. The tangible flaws in Russell’s otherwise-brilliant direction of AMERICAN HUSTLE signaled the growing rot of complacency and false confidence deep within the machine– an acidic corrosion that, if left untreated, threatened to bring his reign to an abrupt end.
AMERICAN HUSTLE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Produced by: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Jonathan Gordon, Megan Ellison
Written by: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren
Production Designer: Judy Becker
Edited by: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Music by: Danny Elfman
- Via Wikipedia: Denby, David (6 December 2013). “Grand Scam “American Hustle.””. The New Yorker (December 2013 issue). Retrieved 30 November 2014.
- Via Wikipedia: Elle Leonsis (11 December 2013). “David O. Russell: In Conversation”. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 15 September 2016.