David O. Russell’s lovable crooks

Filmmaker David O. Russell was laughing delightedly at the antics of his 2-year-old son, Leo. The precocious toddler had found a present meant to be opened only on his birthday, as Russell reminded the boy, but Leo just giggled and told his father, “I’m going to hide and open it!” 

“He’s dancing,” Russell, 55, said, during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home, as he laughed even more heartily and wrangled the gift for safekeeping.

Finding delight, even enchantment amid the vagaries of life has become a specialty of Russell’s cinema, from the boxer making a comeback in 2010’s “The Fighter,” to the bipolar but upbeat protagonist of 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” to the embattled Jewish con artist in his latest film, “American Hustle,” which is now up for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. Russell also earned both a best director nod as well as one in the best original screenplay category, with his co-writer, Eric Warren Singer.

Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the infamous ABSCAM FBI sting that led to the conviction of a United States senator and six other members of Congress, among others, the film spotlights the fictionalized story of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) — who is loosely based on the real-life con artist Melvin Weinberg — and his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams), who agree to participate in a similar undercover operation to avoid prison time.

“American Hustle,” along with Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio in a role based on the debauched financial huckster Jordan Belfort, are two prominent films in this year’s Oscar race that happen to focus on Jewish crooks. In fact, early on, as Russell was writing his script, he said, a studio executive worried that “ ‘This movie is not good for the Jews.’ But I said that I completely disagreed, and that the people in this movie were going to be immensely lovable.

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“What interested me was not that Irving was a con artist, or that it was a story of cynicism, or empty rip-off,” Russell insisted. “In spite of committing bad deeds, it was clear that [Irving and Sydney] were going to get their asses handed to them. The entire movie was going to be a terrible season in hell for them, of paying for their mistakes, but trying to come out of it all the more human.”

 Unlike the darker tones of Russell’s earlier films, including the incest tale “Spanking the Money,” his three recent movies depict “stories that are an engine to show the workings of the human heart,” he said. “It’s creating opportunity for people to reach deep into their humanity, often to recover when their lives are in shambles, to achieve their second or third or fouth chances in life. And ‘American Hustle’ is really about the fragility of survival and of identity and how being true to yourself can be defined in different ways.”

Viewers learn that the fictional Irving witnessed his father, an honest glass merchant, being stepped on by more aggressive players. “He’s struggling with wanting to be a businessman who is worthwhile, but because his father was so taken advantage of, that proved a life lesson for him, that he would never feel like a sucker, and still be a good person in his own way.”

Rosenfeld, who wears a chunky Star of David across his neck, is, deep down, a mensch. Russell added: “There’s a true soulfulness in his eyes, and he’s a very romantic person, who has an enormous passion for life.”

To create the character, Russell said, he relied on his “sense memories” of his own Russian-Jewish father, a publishing executive who, in the 1970s, was driven out of his job because he was unable to play into the politics of his workplace, which rocked Russell’s household. 

“He was a very honest businessman, and I saw him get taken advantage of many times by other businessmen, who intrigued me because I couldn’t understand their behavior,” the director said.

While Russell’s father was Jewish, and his grandfather was a kosher butcher with a shop on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, his mother’s family was Italian Catholic. Neither of Russell’s parents was religious, but his younger self relished visiting his relatives on both sides of the family — whether for a bar mitzvah, a Passover seder or a Catholic confirmation — in their homes scattered across Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island and New Jersey. “It was an adventure,” he recalled of observing his loud, loving and sometimes argumentative relatives; and Russell brings recollections of their interactions, speech patterns and daily rituals to many of his characters.

“As a kid, I would watch my dad shaving every day, and he also had to ‘handle’ his hair — until it was all gone,” Russell said. “American Hustle” opens as the fictional Irving attends to his own morning toilette, which involves meticulously shellacking a toupee to his head. But it’s more than just a scene about bad hair: “It reflects that everyone constructs themselves every day, in terms of what they want to show the world,” Russell said.  

Like his characters, the filmmaker has experienced his own personal journey of adversity, reconstruction and renewal.

He aspired to become a writer since childhood; his parents met when both worked at the publishing house “Simon & Schuster” — his father was a stock boy and his mother a secretary. “Books were everything in our house,” he said of his formative years.

“But I was a late bloomer,” he added. In fact, Russell did not release his first film until he was 36, after graduating from Amherst College and embarking upon an earlier career as a community organizer on behalf of low-income housing.

His first films, including “Flirting With Disaster” and “Three Kings,” he said, were more cynical takes on the human condition. “As a younger person, you like to be more rebellious, more provocative and destructive,” he explained of his choice in subject matter.” 

But misfortune hit Russell hard during the 2000s, during a period he calls “my wilderness years.

“I had a bipolar son [his inspiration to make ‘Silver Linings Playbook’], and his mom and I were getting a divorce,” he recalled. “It was one of those huge, humbling, operatic chapters of life that can bring you to your knees. His mom and I were having many sleepless nights, initially, trying to figure out how to help our son have a life that is productive and happy, which did happen, but took a lot of time and effort.” 

Those days, he added, “felt like the fable of Job, when you’re saying, ‘OK, this is low enough’ and God’s like, ‘No, that’s not low enough.’ Things happened to me that I never could have imagined,” he added of his career. “Like my film, ‘Nailed,’ being shut down in production nine times.”

Those were the years when Russell was thought of as a brilliant but temperamental director; a YouTube video famously depicts his screaming match with Lily Tomlin on the set of “I Heart Huckabees,” and there allegedly was a confrontation with George Clooney during the production of “Three Kings.”

But all the angst of that time led Russell into a period of personal transformation, he said. “The great healing fire of all that is that you’re either going to pick yourself up, or you’re going to go down, and I very much believe that you should incline yourself upward, and that life is to be celebrated and loved, even when you’re at your worst place ever. 

“So I came back from that to create characters that I could look in the eye, as human beings, and to know and love them, no matter what terrible things they had gone through or mistakes they had made. And that’s a great gift as a storyteller.”