Last night in Los Angeles on the first full day of programming for AFI Fest this year, director David O. Russell and his eclectic body of cinematic work was celebrated at the historic Egyptian Theatre, and he also brought the first six minutes of his highly-anticipated new film, “American Hustle.” However, a host of technical issues—including screening the first two minutes almost completely without sound—led the director to grow a little ornery (“We should probably shut it off,” he said, before escaping the stage to settle the problem). But even those couldn’t dismantle the comic energy and early promise that his latest effort sampled.
“It was based on a true story, but like I did with the novel of 'Silver Linings'—where I brought my own life into it—I did the same here,” Russell said of his new film, which is inspired by the real-life ABSCAM operation in which a financial con artist, Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale) and his partner-in-crime/mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) were forced into helping the federal government after they were caught. “They taught the federal government how to con, and create a theatre to draw other people in based on what their hopes were.”
Russell said that he wanted to “focus more on the characters than on an event,” but in the first six minutes of the film, the director drops you in the middle of both elements. The opening scene takes place in the New York Plaza Hotel in 1978, and shows Christian Bale looking perhaps the worst we’ve ever seen him. Gluing on a toupee under his greasy comb over and sporting a voluminous gut, he is our first glimpse of the tragi-comic tone that Russell is aiming for upfront, and it completely works, his velvet period outfit sealing the deal.
Once Bale sorts his hair out, he struts out into the hallway to the tune of America’s “A Horse With No Name” and enter another room, where a number of federal agents set up video surveillance honing in elsewhere in the hotel on a meeting space with two couches. The door opens behind him and in walks Adams, wearing a deep-cut top that leaves little to the imagination, and right behind her, a Jheri curled Bradley Cooper as FBI agent Richie DiMaso.
The three launch into a fast-paced argument over the unclear operation they’re about to perform, and also the insinuation that Cooper and Adams’ characters may have engaged in an affair themselves. Cooper tries to example the limits of their relationship, laying his hand on Bale’s cheek to show him its extent, but Bale bats it away. “Don’t touch me. It bothers me,” he says.
“Oh, it bothers you?” replies Cooper. “Well, a lot of shit bothers me too. I was trying to help you. If I wanted to fucking bother you, this is what I’d do.” He then threads his hand through Bale’s hair, dislodging his hairpiece and spiking his comb over up in an Alfalfa fashion.
Bale’s reaction—simmering, frozen in complete hatred—is pitch-perfect, and the entire exchange between the three characters immediately gives you a sense of their volatile relationship. Yet hair is still the most startling element throughout the opening passages, as the trio shrug the fight off and focus on their mark: the bouffant-heavy New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (a jovial Jeremy Renner).
The credits play over Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” as Bale, Adams, and Cooper meet Polito and his associate, who’s played wonderfully by “Take Shelter” actor Shea Whigham. They sit and it quickly becomes clear that Cooper is possessing a $75,000 bribe of some sort for Polito, but when he pushes the briefcase containing it over to the Mayor, the entire deal goes haywire. Polito refuses the bribe and storms out of the room, leading to another heated argument between Bale and Cooper. The clip ends with Bale leaving to “go mop up the mess”; however, we do catch the beginning of what appears to be a flashback to Bale’s childhood, as he says in voiceover, “Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad? I learned out to survive when I was a kid.”
We’ve heard rumors that the film starts off “light and poppy” before fading into darkness during the second half, but from what we’ve seen thus far that frothy period will be massively entertaining indeed. Every actor on-screen is relishing in their role, Russell’s camera is as intense and roving as always, and altogether we can’t wait for the chance to see more.
You can read more from Russell’s AFI Fest talk soon, and hopefully we’ll soon get a full-length look at “American Hustle,” which opens December 13 in limited release and then goes wide on December 18. Some video of the event below via Hollywood Elsewhere.