Saturday 20 July 2019

Making the law

Jennifer Lawrence put off a holiday to star in American Hustle, and her performance comes from "the core of her soul". By Will Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence
Hustlers: Russell and his stars
Jennifer Lawrence at The Hunger Games Catching Fire Premiere

After finishing work on the latest instalment in The Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire, Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence was desperate for a holiday, and was all set to kick back and relax. Then she got a phone call.

"I was about to go on vacation," begins the 23-year-old actress, "but then David O Russell called about American Hustle and I just had to do it. In many ways, it's better than a vacation.

"I love what comes out of David's mind," she coos. "I love what he writes and creates and how he expresses himself. He is food to creativity and I couldn't pass up the chance. I think I am his biggest fan."

It certainly sounds that way, though few would condemn Lawrence for her effusion. After all, it was Russell who directed her to Oscar glory with 2012's Silver Linings Playbook.

American Hustle looks similarly award-worthy, with Russell recruiting a clutch of his favourite collaborators, including Silver Linings stars Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, along with the likes of Christian Bale and Amy Adams, for a film that he has been building up to all of his filmmaking life.

The film brims with high energy and has attracted near-universal praise from the critics, who revel in the comedic aspects as much as the raw emotion that the top-line cast mines from its characters.

It is inspired by the FBI's real-life ABSCAM operation from the late '70s and early '80s, which saw a senator and six members of the House of Representatives convicted of bribery and corruption.

Prior to the operation only a handful of Congressman had ever been convicted of bribery. Hence with the launch of ABSCAM, the FBI resorted to sneaky tactics to catch them out, recruiting convicted conman Melvin Weinberg to front the sting.

On screen, this honour passes to the fictional Irving Rosenfeld, played by Bale. "I knew Christian would have a hard time saying no to playing this character, who is such a specific New York, Bronx, character, a guy with a big heart," begins Russell.

"I related to him personally because my own dad was a businessman in the '60s and '70s, and he was very, very much like the father that Christian Bale's character has in the movie -- a man who was scrupulous and extremely honest.

"I saw my father get taken advantage of in business," continues the writer-director. "I saw the nice guys get hurt and that made a big impact on me and a very big impact on my home.

"So I very much related to the side of Christian Bale's character that admired his father as an honest man, but also the side of him that said, 'I don't want that to happen to me. How do I become more cunning than that?'"

While no one would directly compare David O Russell and Irving Rosenfeld, both men have exceptional talents and both are expert showmen.

In Russell's case the showmanship has seen him write and direct films as diverse and interesting as Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter, the latter featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Bale.

"In American Hustle I have Christian playing this guy with a belly and a comb-over," says Russell, "a man who is confident and warmhearted, with soulful eyes, yet is a criminal.

"And yet, so many women who have seen the film tell me how undeniably sexy they find him, which I find funny."

Bellies and comb-overs do not figure prominently among the characteristics that women desire. "But that does makes sense to me," chimes Russell. "As Christian's character says in the movie, it's about life; it's about confidence.

"The word 'con' is based on the word 'confidence.' And it is not just a trick; you have to give yourself confidence every day."

The narrative is centred not only on Rosenfeld but also his lover, Sydney, played by Man of Steel star Amy Adams. "He's got a wife and a kid, but he's got a lover and partner in crime," explains Russell.

"He gets busted by a very ambitious and unpredictable FBI agent who makes them work for him -- to teach the FBI how to con and to capture other criminals."

The couple's collaboration with the FBI begins with attacks on financial con artists, their own peers, who sell fake bank certificates of deposit, or stolen or forged art, "all the things that the Irving character did," notes Russell.

"The FBI then says, 'Teach us how to now create a honeypot to attract other criminals, and so that we can catch other criminals. Then you'll go with immunity. You and your partner will leave and you'll be OK.'"

The writer-director says that he wants the female characters to be as strong as the male characters in the movie and that he designed Bale's wife around his knowledge of Adams, with whom he and Bale had worked with on The Fighter.

"I want the women to be very powerful presences," he says. "I think the whole movie elevates to an extremely rich world, when the women are extremely strong and extremely complicated."

None more so than Adams' character. "She has a soulfulness and intensity," Russell says of Adams, "and I love bringing out a kind of vixen in her, a mastermind, because Amy is incredibly smart and intuitive. I built the character on my sense of Amy."

The other woman in Rosenfeld's life is his wife, played by Lawrence. "He has made himself as a new person in a very successful, charming life, with the love of his life, and then we find out he has a son and a wife and while he loves his son the wife's a problem," Russell says.

"She is a complicated, cunning and charged person," he adds. "That's the character of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, whose difficult-ness and craziness becomes her genius in a way. She could only be played as charmingly and unpredictably as Jennifer plays her."

Lawrence loves the character, believing that "she got married very young and doesn't want a divorce from Christian's character for all the wrong reasons -- because she is Catholic, because she doesn't want to be alone, because she is scared, because they have a very a tumultuous relationship, because she has a drinking problem.

"What I love about her," continues Lawrence, "is that she is volatile and disgusting in her behaviour but she is just so young and immature. None of it is coming from a bad place; she is very naive. She is sexy. The only hold she has over her husband is sex."

It is an intriguing triangle and Rosenfeld's wife plays an equally intriguing role in the movie.

"She suddenly takes all the malevolence she pointed at her husband and explains that it was for his better interests, and that she did him a favour and he should thank her," says Russell.

"Moments of logic like that are maddening but also somehow very disarming, and lovable. Those are things that are really funny to me. And Jennifer always gives you everything from the core of her soul and she'll fire it out and then she's able to go back to being who she is. That's sort of a gift that she has."

Their admiration is mutual and with seven Golden Globe nominations in the bag, few will be surprised if Russell once again directs Lawrence, Bale and maybe a few others, to awards season glory.

Irish Independent

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