I’m sure I’m not blowing anyone’s mind here when I say that David O. Russell is one of the greatest directors of our generation. He’s definitely in my personal top 5. And the biggest thing that links together O’Russell’s work, and which speaks to me personally, is his absolute dedication to characters who are trying to write the story of their own lives, and are therefore missing the whole damn point.
Think of the obsessive yelling of Bradley Cooper’s bipolar dancer in Silver Linings Playbook. The faux-cynical philosophizing of George Clooney’s soldier in Three Kings. The constant zany shenanigans of the characters of I <3 Huckabees as they attempt to rewrite who they are. These are all characters who think that they can hack their own psyches and create their own destinies, brought to their inevitable conclusions (be they up beat or depressing) by the inherent truth of their character. This is why O’Russell is such a meaty director for actors to work with – it’s not just that he, as Amy Adams recently described on The Daily Show, likes to sit slightly off frame and scream directions at his actors. It’s that he provides actors with a rich tapestry of emotions – of first order and second order volitions – of desires hidden within desires hidden within desires – to play with.
Never has this subtext been more clear than in the director’s latest masterpiece, American Hustle. All four of the main characters, the over confident con man (Christian Bale), his smart as hell but deeply damaged mistress (Amy Adams), the bombastic cop who chases them down (Bradley Cooper) and the desperate, yearning wife who could unhinge everything (Jennifer Lawrence) – are rendered ultimately, painfully limited. Despite his confident swagger, Bale cant control his own fictions. Amy Adams nearly omnipresent cleavage cant distract us from the intentional fakeness of her British accent. Coopers new suits don’t transform him into a super detective. And no amount of sleezy philosophizing can turn Lawrence’s dramatic, trashy single mother into anything but.
And all four actors give performances that, on their own, would be the talk of the Oscar season. That Bale isn’t on the best actor short list (and that Adams isn’t a fucking shoe-in for hers) is a testament both to how obscenely strong a year this has been in film AND how magnetic and insane Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is. It means almost nothing at this point to say that Jennifer Lawrence is a ridiculously talented actress, but here she lathers on a level of self-delusion and grandeur that offsets her usually nakedly authentic performances and shows that she has even greater range than previously thought.
As usual, O’Russell shows a penchant for perfect musical cues, kinetic camera work, and the ability to stay one step ahead of the audience without feeling cheap or manipulative. He does mainstream filmmaking that’s accessible and profound, and gifts the audience with amazing performances.
A friend of mine asked me about American Hustle, “I mean, is it really good? Or is O’Russell just becoming one of those directors everyone has to love?” To me, his movies are almost the opposite. They refuse to take polemic, easy stances. They speak to universal human truths, but not always in an uplifting or perfectly satisfying way. And, especially in the case of American Hustle, they take their time getting to their conclusions. It’s a testament to his carefully built character work that his films are as ultimately successful and satisfying as they are.
Also, I kind of thought it was easy bullshit when The Golden Globes characterized American Hustle as a comedy, but it really is hilarious from start to finish.