About twelve years ago I was exiting a restaurant in West Hollywood when I recognized the French actor Saïd Taghmaoui walking towards me.
"Je vous ai beaucoup aimé dans Three Kings. Je croyais que c'était l'un des meilleurs filmes de l'année," I told him.
"You should tell the director," he shot back in flawless English and then turned to the gentleman behind him who immediately shook my hand and introduced himself, "David Russell. Nice to meet you."
"I thought Three Kings was one of the best films of the year," I said. "What are you working on now?"
He said he was writing a psychic detective film and I told him that I had studied parapsychology at Duke University and it had led to my interests in Buddhism and Hinduism. It was the tail end of a festive evening for both of us and Russell was intense, smart, affable and gracious. We chatted for a few minutes, shook hands, and that was that.
When I saw I Heart Huckabees I thought that it was too smart for its own good; I found it to be very original (mostly in tone) but pretentious. The narrative did not compel me; I was unable to suspend disbelief. Then I saw the YouTube clip of Russell berating Lily Tomlin and I was aghast. Toss in the fact that George Clooney publicly stated that he would never work with Russell again and I imagined that Russell's career was heading downhill.
Half-way through Silver Linings Playbook it dawned upon me that Mr. Russell had found his Antoine Doinel. Not in Bradley Cooper but in Jennifer Lawrence. In creating his alter-ego Antoine Doinel, incarnated by actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, François Truffaut had also created his muse and possibly even his own redemption. Somehow I felt that watching Jennifer Lawrence (particularly, for some reason, in the diner scene when she guffaws, "You think I'm crazier than you...?" and then flips out) Mr. Russell had achieved a level of trust and love with his actors rarely evinced by many directors, save auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack, Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, etc.
Some might find some of the performances in American Hustle to be maudlin (I did not); some might find that hairdos and costumes render some of the characters to be caricatures (I did not); but the profundity of the pathos elicited by Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner is undeniable. Christian Bale's redemption -- the desperate reach at authenticity after years of grifting -- is truly heartwarming. Bradley Cooper getting his comeuppance after selfishly and greedily trying to manipulate Mr. Bale and Ms. Adams will put a smile on every face.
Mr. Bale's schlumpy savant is sheer genius. Ms. Adams' arriviste accent, swagger and swoosh are impeccable. Mr. Cooper's performance is daring, bawdy. Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Shea Whigham, Robert DeNiro and Elisabeth Rohm are all brilliant and delightful.
And yet, to me, it is Jennifer Lawrence's timeless, trigger-happy face that kept me at the edge of my seat whenever she is on the screen. She is smart, fiery, irrepressible and dangerous; when she interacts with men I feel as if I'm watching a raw nerve flickering. Anything could happen. My take on Ms. Lawrence is that she's Mr. Russell's alter-ego and muse. Maybe I'm wrong, but I can only imagine that there is a type of fatherly love he feels for her similar to Truffaut's love for Jean-Pierre Léaud. And the safety of that love instills confidence in Ms. Lawrence to explore wild shades from delicate to incendiary. Hopefully the freedom she has earned from "The Hunger Games" franchise will allow her to continue to make bold and outrageous choices. If so, I wouldn't bet against her as the Meryl Streep of her generation.
There is literally only one flaw in this film and it is not Ms. Lawrence's fault. Towards the end she cites Wayne Dyer's book The Power of Intention which did not exist until twenty years after the demise of her character's hairstyle as well as the 8-Track player. For this we can forgive Mr. Russell.
I cannot even begin to imagine how he explained the complex roles and delicious character arcs to Mr. Bale, Ms. Adams, Mr. Cooper and Ms. Lawrence. They all must have had so much trust in his psychological understanding of his characters as well as his vision for the film that they were willing to push themselves to new and exotic limits. If you appreciated films such as The Sting, Goodfellas, Get Shorty, Very Bad Things, and even found dark humor in A Simple Plan, then you will love American Hustle.
It's smart, fiery, irrepressible and dangerous. Just like its auteur and his muse.