Film trilogies these days tend to be epic, “Hobbit”-like affairs, the mythology of one film quite literally picked up and furthered in the next, and often in a world not exactly resembling our own.
But trilogies also sometimes come in more subtle flavors, as in the case of David O Russell, whose new film "American Hustle," about cons and criminals in 1970s New Jersey, opens Friday after a whirlwind few weeks of taste maker laurels.
After making just one film over a span of 11 years, Russell has now made three films in the last 36 months. starting with the boxing drama "The Fighter" in 2010 and continuing with the mental-health dramedy "Silver Linings Playbook" in 2012. Perhaps because they were all made during such a short period, these films form a cohesive whole, playing on the same themes of survival, redemption and reinvention—and, more specifically, asking what makes someone finally decide to make a change after years of unhealthy routine.
In “The Fighter,” Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward has been squeezed for much of his adult life by his domineering mother and his needy brother; it takes some new people and events for him to seize control and start living up to his boxing potential. In “Silver Linings,” Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has a similar problem—coping with bipolar disorder for much of his life. He can’t seem to get out of his own way, let alone out from under the thumb of his dysfunctional parents. It takes some specific elements—namely, the specific Jennifer Lawrence—to motivate some change.
And in "Hustle," Bale's con-man Irv Rosenfeld believes he’s taking control of his life by becoming a huckster and avoiding the fate of his pushover father. Over the course of the film, a series of schemes gone wrong and other developments convince him, after years of comfortable conning, to take control in a different way.
All of this is no accident. Russell, as Cooper told The Times, “wears his heart on his sleeve,” has been eager to put his own story into these movies. And his own story is similarly one in which he needed a precipitating factor to force change.
As Russell told The Times in an interview, "Each one of the people in these movies begins in a place where their lives are in shambles," Russell explained. "They don't know if they want to be who they are or if they want to live as they are. And that's how I felt back before these movies."
After suffering through a divorce, indecision, anger and a general lack of direction, particularly around the production of 2004’s “I Heart Huckabees,” he had lost his way. It took discovering and then adapting a novel by Matthew Quick called “Silver Linings Playbook,” which resonated with him because of his own bipolar-afflicted son, for him to get on a new road.
Much of the fun of the three movies—and like any good trilogy, they are better appreciated when watched in succession,, their connective tissue made more apparent—involves the all-in humor Russell is known for, from the dance scene concluding "Silver Linings" to the sisterly hair-pull fight in "The Fighter," and now, the spirited squabbling among Rosenfeld, his girlfriend and an FBI agent.
The trio of films also mix and match cast in interesting ways, In “Fighter” Bale is the drag on the hero; in “American Hustle," he’s being dragged. Bradley Cooper reverses the trajectory—in his first Russell film he’s the one trying to break out, while in “Hustle, he’s the impediment in many ways to the evolution of the central character.
Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, who serve as key cast members in "Hustle" also cleverly play off roles from their previous movies--Adams again is the strong-willed girlfriend motivator, while Lawrence is the quirky, unlucky-in-love big personality.)
The result is an even greater feeling that all of these films are of a piece, as though for all the specificity of their stories, characters and actors are interchangeable. Think of it as one epic movie in three chapters, with different actors playing different roles depending on which chapter you happen to find yourself.
Russell hasn’t decided what his next movie might be. He has a Kennedy assassination film in development that could well fit the bill. That would seem to take him in a new thematic direction. Then again, as we know from Hollywood tentpoles, trilogies can often morph into fourquels.