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Christian Bale, Amy Adams and David O. Russell on the set of American Hustle, an ode to America’s oil-shock anti-glory days. (Francois Duhamel)
Christian Bale, Amy Adams and David O. Russell on the set of American Hustle, an ode to America’s oil-shock anti-glory days. (Francois Duhamel)

How filmmaker David O. Russell learned to master the Hollywood hustle Add to ...

David O. Russell is telling a story. “Did you ever have to find a way to survive,” he asks, “and you knew your choices were bad?”

Sorry, scratch that. Russell, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, didn’t actually say those words. They were spoken by Irving Rosenfeld, the lovelorn con man played by Christian Bale in Russell’s nervy new 1970s comic drama, American Hustle. But Russell wrote them, and they spring from his own experience. And besides, when you’re discussing a movie about people deceiving themselves and each other – a movie that begins with a title-card teasing, “Some of this actually happened” – you don’t want to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

And this is a good story.

It goes something like this: Once upon a time in the mid-1990s, Russell was an indie-film darling, a Sundance-born prince admired for Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, screwball black comedies that came overlaid with helpings of existential angst. But they were minor box-office successes, and in the ensuing years he acquired something of a reputation for prickliness and on-set battles with the talent: There was a head-butting incident with his Three Kings star George Clooney, and a nasty verbal assault visited upon Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees, which an anonymous onlooker thoughtfully YouTubed for posterity.

Worse, the studios never really understood his unconventional films. (Or, if they did, they never knew how to market them.) So by the time the talky, sprawling, navel-gazing Huckabees belly-flopped into theatres in the fall of 2004, Russell had worn out his welcome.

There were troubles at home, too. His son struggled with bipolar disorder. In 2007, Russell and his wife divorced. For six years, he failed to get a feature made. He needed to find a way to survive, needed to reinvent himself.

So when the formulaic boxing picture The Fighter came across his radar a few years ago, Russell fought for it, and then made it his own. For the first time, he emphasized empathy over irony, burrowing deep into the rust-belt reality of Lowell, Mass., and its rough-edged locals. The picture received seven Oscar nominations, including one for Russell’s direction; and won two, for supporting actors Christian Bale and Melissa Leo.

Russell leveraged that success into what he calls “my most personal film,” Silver Linings Playbook, another story of survival and reinvention, this time about a man (Bradley Cooper) with bipolar and anger-management issues, grasping for a happy ending. That film received eight Oscar nominations (including one each for Russell’s direction and writing); Jennifer Lawrence won the best-actress trophy, cementing Russell’s unlikely reputation as an actor’s director.

American Hustle is the capstone to this new chapter of filmmaking, fusing his old films’ restless intelligence and love of screwball with that new-found humanity. Brashly entertaining, it is a big-hearted ode to the country’s post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, oil-shock anti-glory days, when its citizens fashioned glamour out of collapse. Loosely based on the late-1970s Abscam corruption investigation, in which the FBI used a fake Arab sheik to ensnare a handful of congressmen, the film centres on a pair of con-artist lovers (Fighter alumni Amy Adams and an unrecognizable Bale) who are strong-armed into assisting the feds in a sting. Cooper is an FBI agent who falls for Adams’s character even as he pressures her for help, while Lawrence tears up the screen as Irv’s unstable Long Island housewife, whom he calls “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”

Once again, Russell’s rare alchemy is intoxicating the critics. On Thursday, the film scored seven Golden Globe nominations, including one for each of its starring actors. It opens across Canada next Friday.

If the plot is a doozy, the reinvented Russell insists his primary interest lies in the characters. “The predicament is a terrific predicament, it gives us enormous opportunity to deal with theme and emotion,” he said in a phone interview this week, one day after the film’s New York premiere, as a car whisked him to the airport. But he recalled that, when he sat in Bale’s backyard more than a year ago and the two men traded ideas of what the film could be, they sought to focus on the “opera of ordinary people who are living passionate lives.

“There’s a lot of love and a lot of romance in it. Those are things that I never would have predicted would be at the heart of what I’m doing in filmmaking or storytelling.”

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