SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994)
Of all the living American directors with a constant presence on the awards circuit, few have had as controversial and twisting a career as director David O. Russell. Over the course of a filmography spanning over two decades, his profile has risen to dizzying heights only to fall precipitously because of his tendency for self-destructive indulgence– and that’s just the first ten years.
His reputation as a filmmaker of impeccably-crafted prestige pictures has really only solidified within the past six years, and even then– if the lackluster reception of 2015’s JOY is any indication– there’s signals that it’s already unraveling.
With works like THE FIGHTER (2010) or AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), Russell has emerged as the heir apparent to Martin Scorsese’s rock-infused portraits of America, and despite a hit-or-miss back catalog, each new work is greeted with the buzz of anticipation by cinephiles around the world.
To study Russell’s body of work is to chronicle the fast-paced career of a flawed, yet undeniably brilliant filmmaker who is still very much in the process of shaping his legacy. A product of Russian Jewish and Italian American heritage, David O. Russell was born August 20th, 1958, in Manhattan.
His parents worked in publishing at Simon & Schuster– father Bernard as a VP of Sales and mother Maria as a secretary – and his upbringing in an academic and cultured middle-class household full of books and novels would fundamentally inform the unique character of his later film work.
The Russells eventually moved to Larchmont, NY, but the mild-mannered suburb could not stifle or contain young David’s mischievous nature (which earned him the honor of Class Rebel at Mamaroneck High School. His love affair with cinema began in his early teens, when he discovered the work of Scorsese and Roman Polanski.
It wasn’t long until he started making movies of his own, using a class assignment as an opportunity to shoot a short documentary on Super8mm about people in New York City. Despite his early love for filmmaking, Russell had decided to follow in the steps of his parents and pursue a career in writing, leading him to start his own high school newspaper in addition to the creation of several short stories.
His passion for writing coincided with an emerging fascination with political science, both of which he studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts. After receiving his AB degree in 1981, he adopted something of a nomadic lifestyle.
Beyond the usual aimless twentysomething occupations of bartending and manual labor, he taught Sandinista literacy in Nicaguara and served as a community organizer in Maine. All the while, he continued cultivating his interest in writing and cinema.
His innate sense of political activism led him to shoot short documentaries about poor housing conditions in Lewiston, Maine and Panamanian immigrants living in Boston. The latter project would net him his first official job in the film business, as a PA on the PBS series “Smithsonian World”.
In the late 80’s, Russell branched out into fictional storytelling, a development that would finally generate some momentum for the restless young man as he neared his thirtieth birthday. In 1987, he wrote, produced and directed a short film about an obsessive bingo-playing mother called BINGO INFERNO: A PARODY ON AMERICAN OBSESSIONS, the quality of which earned him a screening slot at Sundance.
He returned to Park City two years later with another short starring Bette Davis and William Hickey called HAIRWAY TO THE STARS. With the clout of the biggest film festival in America behind him, Russell was finally ready to make the jump into features.
Russell’s first feature– 1994’s SPANKING THE MONKEY— comes from audacious origins. He had initially written a film about a writer of fortune cookies, and managed to obtain grants from the New York State Council On The Arts and the National Endowment For The Arts to make it.
Somewhere along the way, Russell had a change of heart, and decided to write a dark coming-of-age comedy about a young man’s incestuous relationship with his mother. Working with producer Dean Silvers, Russell used the grant money and donations from friends and family to cobble together the necessary $200k.
He also got a valuable assist from Janet Grillo, an executive and producer over at New Line Cinema who he’d married in 1992. SPANKING THE MONKEY shot in Russell’s native upstate New York for twenty five days, and despite having to return the grant money for not delivering on the project he initially pitched, the film’s potentially off-putting subject matter was ultimately eclipsed by an innate warmth and humanity.
SPANKING THE MONKEY plays like a fucked-up, Oedipal version of THE GRADUATE (1967) set in suburban Connecticut. Jeremy Davies plays Ray Aibelli, a sexually-frustrated pre-med student who is forced to give up a promising internship in Washington DC to tend to his invalid mother while his father is away on a business trip.
Alberta Watson gives a courageous performance as Ray’s mom, Susan, spending a great deal of the film posted up in her bed with a broken leg. It’s by no means a savory role– she’s required to be depressed and unhappy throughout, all while projecting a vulnerable sensuality that ensnares her own son.
Watson is due major credit for her role in the movie’s success– she gives herself over entirely to Russell’s direction despite his inexperience, and in the process manages to capture the humanity her character requires in order for the story to work.
Benjamin Hendrickson assumes the antagonist role as Ray’s father, Tom, loading his young son down with an overbearing set of rules and laws while he’s on the road hawking self-help videotapes and fooling around with hookers. The only bright spot in Ray’s life is Toni Peck, the sweet and sexually-naive girl next door played by Carla Gallo.
Despite its sensationalist subject matter, SPANKING THE MONKEY asserts itself as a heartfelt coming-of-age story wherein a young man must claim his right to independence and autonomy in one of the most unthinkable and disgusting ways possible.
While his later works would distinguish themselves with stylized cinematography, Russell approaches the shooting of SPANKING THE MONKEY with an understated, naturalistic aesthetic. Cinematographer Michael Mayers captures the warm, heavy light of a humid East Coast summer onto the 1.85:1 35mm film frame.
Locked-off, functional compositions appropriately convey the oppressive banality of suburbia, but as the story becomes more unhinged, Russell and Mayers turn to unbalanced handheld photography to compensate. David Carbonara provides a spare, unobtrusive score via quiet guitar plucks, while Russell adds a few sourced tracks from rock band Morphine in the first instance of his recurring use of rock music as a stylized storytelling device.
While it’s highly doubtful that Russell ever felt feelings like this towards his own mother, an intimate and personal energy courses through SPANKING THE MONKEY. His upbringing in an academic household is reflected via Ray’s obsession with internships and his studies, to which his mother also becomes a source of wisdom and advice.
The importance of family is a core conceit of Russell’s artistic character, albeit reflected within SPANKING THE MONKEY in an oblique way that builds to Ray’s ultimate desertion of his family at film’s end. On its face, that may seem to refute Russell’s interest in the idea of family as a fundamental sculptor of character, but it’s also hard to argue that his warped relationship to his family isn’t the primary catalyst for his faking of his own death to create a new identity for himself.
For all the trouble Russell had in convincing investors to finance his “incest comedy”, he had no problem convincing audiences that SPANKING THE MONKEY was a boldly enjoyable work of indie cinema. The film was honored with an Audience Award following its debut at Sundance, and further went on to claim an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.
Even the theatrical box office take proved surprising, grossing $1.3 million dollars against its paltry $200k budget. In following the tried-and-true template of fashioning his first feature as a personal story about the world he knew, Russell engineered an auspicious debut for himself that would kick start one of the most celebrated careers in contemporary American cinema.
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996)
The modest success of his 1994 feature debut, SPANKING THE MONKEY, placed director David O. Russell on the radar of Hollywood production companies as a talent to watch. One such company was Miramax, who at the time was run by a sibling pair of awards-bait moguls, Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
They saw Russell’s potential right away, and quickly brought him and his producing partner Dean Silvers into their fold as Russell began writing his follow-up– a road trip comedy called FLIRTING WITH DISASTER. Released in 1996, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER finds Russell working with established Hollywood stars for the first time in his career, while solidifying his own profile as an emerging filmmaker with a twisted take on family and identity.
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER stars Ben Stiller as Mel Coplin, a New York entomologist and a new father who is having trouble naming his newborn son because, as an adopted child himself, he has no grasp on his true lineage.
Charged up with a feverish neuroticism and an ample supply of sexual hang-ups, Mel goes over his wife Nancy’s head (the flirtatious and frustrated Patricia Arquette) to enlist the help of Tea Leoni’s Tina Kalb, a clinical and buttoned-up adoption agent who’s a little frayed around the edges.
She’s found his birth parents (or so she claims), and volunteers to join Mel and Nancy on a dizzying road trip that will take them from Manhattan, to San Diego, then Michigan, and finally to New Mexico as they desperately follow what little strands of information they have left when Tina’s records prove entirely unreliable.
Along the way, the trio is comically besieged by temptation, doubt, and distraction in the form of their ever-growing entourage. Towards this end, Russell fills his supporting cast with an inspired mix of established talent and on-the-rise upcomers who have since established themselves in their own right.
George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore play Mel’s uptight and fiery adopted parents, a pair of stuffy upper crust types. Mel’s real parents, however, couldn’t be more different– Allan Alda and Lily Tomlin play the characters of Richard and Mary Schlichting as warm and inviting art hippies with an almost-debilitating passion for acid.
There’s also a fresh-faced Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins (who looked exactly the same in 1996 as he does now), playing a literal odd couple who are partners in both work and life. Jenkins’ ATF agent Paul Harmon is an irritable grouch, contrasting starkly with his husband Tory Kent, characterized by Brolin as a laid back and charismatic presence that just so happens to have an intimate history with Mel’s wife that drives Mel wild with seething envy.
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER’s cinematography, executed by Director of Photography Eric Alan Edwards, marks a technical step up from Russell’s rough-edged indie debut. Again shooting on 35mm film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Russell imbues FLIRTING WITH DISASTER with a polished naturalism, leaning into the visual grammar and stylistic techniques of the road picture and romantic comedy genres even as he seeks to subvert them.
In this respect, the film’s visual style resembles the aesthetic of Billy Wilder, utilizing classical camera movement and covering dialogue with a preference for two-shots over closeups. Just as frequently, however, Russell injects a Martin Scorsese-style rock-and-roll energy with handheld camerawork or the aggressive breaking of the 4th wall during the film’s impressionistic opening sequence.
Composer Stephen Endelman provides a spare, rock-influenced score that Russell complements with a variety of jazz, punk, and country cues that further reflect the various locales in which the winding story finds itself. SPANKING THE MONKEY introduced several of the core thematic conceits that shape Russell’s artistic character, and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER expands upon those in interesting fashion.
The repressed, Oedipal nature of sex that he so boldly explored in his previous film continues to fuel the comic engine here, subjecting Stiller’s character to an onslaught of sexually humiliating scenarios– not the least of which finds his wife trying to blow him in front of his infant son (and while his adoption agent awkwardly waits in the other room).
He hates his sex life being discussed with others; indeed, he seems profoundly intimidated by the entire enterprise. Russell ties his hang-ups about sex into his hang-ups with family, charging Mel’s story with a peculiar family dynamic: alienation.
He’s alienated from his adopted parents because he is inherently not of their blood, he’s alienated from his birth parents because he has no basis of connection to them other than blood, he’s alienated from his wife because she can’t relate to his plight, and he’s alienated from his son because he doesn’t even know what to name him.
A major subplot revolves around Mel being physically unable to name his newborn, simply because he himself does not know where he comes from or who he really is. FLIRTING WITH DISASTER hammers home the idea of how identity is fundamentally shaped by family– before Mel can become an anchor for his son and wife, he needs to find his own rock.
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER also evidences the emergence of another, less-enviable directorial signature- a propensity for quarreling with his collaborators. His blow-ups with George Clooney in THREE KINGS (1999) and Tomlin on I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) are the stuff of Hollywood legend, but even as early as his second feature film, there were reports of Russell continously clashing with Stiller over a variety of creative matters.
Despite its rocky shoot, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER premiered to an even warmer reception than Russell’s debut. The film screened out of competition at Cannes, and critics were quick to include it in their yearly “best-of” lists. Twenty years later, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER is remembered as a classic 90’s comedy that boosted its ambitious director’s rising profile.
In taking the guise of a road comedy, FLIRTING DISASTER complements SPANKING THE MONKEY as the second in a pair of coming-of-age pictures about family and identity. These two films could only have been made by Russell at the beginning of his film career; indeed, his filmography from here on out would bear a very different resemblance.
At nearly 40 years old, Russell was breaking out at a relatively older age than the bulk of his counterparts, a product of arrested development not unlike Stiller’s protagonist. He still had some growing up to do, and he still had so much more road to travel.
THREE KINGS (1999)
Some directors show a steady progression in confidence and craft as their careers unfold, while others lurch forward by leaps and bounds– surprising us with a burst of creativity we weren’t expecting. In 19999, director David O. Russell proved himself to be an artist of the latter persuasion with the release of his ambitious and stylistically-radical action comedy, THREE KINGS.
There was very little, if anything at all, within Russell’s previous two films that signaled the sheer size of the artistic beast he contained within himself, and it all exploded out with such force that not even he could control its bloodlust.
The stress of mounting his first mainstream studio film at such a high level (a $42 million operating budget) proved a trial by fire for the young director, whose artistic brilliance was tempered by an outsized ego and combative hotheadedness that established his reputation throughout the industry as a “difficult” filmmaker.
This lethal combination had sunk other directors with far greater delusions of grandeur (see: Michael Cimino and the production debacle of HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)), but THREE KINGS somehow managed to be both an artistic and commercial success that dramatically boosted Russell’s rising profile.
THREE KINGS began as a script by John Ridley called SPOILS OF WAR, written in part as a challenge to himself to see how fast he could write and sell a screenplay. Needless to say, challenge accomplished: Ridley churned out the script in a week and sold it to Warner Brothers only 18 days later.
After the success of 1996’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, producer Charles Roven brought Russell a collection of script loglines to consider for his next project. The logline for SPOILS OF WAR leapt out to Russell, and he used it as a jumping off point for his own screenplay instead of actually reading (let alone using) any part of Ridley’s script.
The story, of which the begrudging Ridley would eventually get a credit for on the finished film, takes place immediately after the end of Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait. Very much unlike the quagmire of Vietnam, victory was swift– on the order of days, almost hours.
Many soldiers found themselves in the desert unsure what to do with themselves– after all, could they really call themselves heroes if they never even fired their weapons? Among these anxious soldiers is Troy Barlow, a rambunctious hothead who has just become a father.
Played by Mark Wahlberg in the first of what would be several collaborations with Russell, Troy is eager to get home, but is also desperate to find some sort of purpose in the conflict. He finally finds it when he discovers what appears to be a treasure map stashed away between a prisoner’s ass cheeks.
He takes it to his superior, Chief Elgin (played to great effect by rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube), who realizes that it points to the location of a stash of gold bullion that Saddam Hussein hid away deep in the desert.
They decide to fake a “special” mission to go out and retrieve the gold under the auspices that they’re returning stolen property to the Kuwaiti people, but in order to sneak off the base they’ll need the help of the soon-to-be-retiring officer Archie Gates, played by George Clooney during the height of his “E.R.” heyday in a bid to establish himself as a true-blue movie star.
Clooney successfully parlays his smooth, unruffled physicality into that of a tired & disillusioned burn-out, a dynamic that no doubt was helped along by the fact that he was simultaneously shooting E.R. half the week during the shoot.
The so-called “Three Kings” set off into the desert to retrieve the gold, accompanied by Spike Jonze’s dim-witted redneck, Conrad Vig, as comic relief. Jonze’s casting is notable in that he was (and still isn’t) an actor, per se; he was a director in his own right, and had recently come off the making of his own classic, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999).
Jonze was a good friend of Russell’s out in New York, who wrote the role of Conrad specifically for him. The four manage to find Saddam’s gold, but their attempts to extricate it are complicated by the refugees they’ve accidentally liberated from Iraqi rule in the process– a tricky situation considering that conflict operations are officially over.
Burdened by their consciences, the soldiers agree to transport their new charges (some played by actual Desert Storm refugees) across the border to safety. Thus, the stage is set for a rousing action-adventure that combines chaotic comedy with timely relevance (especially in the context of George W. Bush’s re-entry into the region in 2003).
Aside from its trio of famous leads, THREE KINGS also features several prominent character actors from a variety of backgrounds. Cliff Curtis gives a human face to the Kuwaiti refugees as their leader and a recent-widower, while a young Alia Shawkat of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT fame plays his daughter.
Judy Greer– another future ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT cast member– plays the rival reporter to Nora Dunn’s all-business field reporter with a chip on her shoulder. Comedian Jamie Kennedy grows out a wispy mustache for his role as a foolish soldier assigned to distract Dunn’s character from following Archie and his companions into the desert.
Finally, Holt McCallany plays a vindictive fellow soldier who pursues the “Kings” with a tactical, by-the-book zeal. Of all the stylistic departures Russell makes from the naturalistic, low-key aesthetic of his first two features, the cinematography of THREE KINGS represents the most radical.
Working with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, Russell boldly experiments with the outer limits of the 35mm film format to paint a depiction of war not as hell necessarily, but as hardcore rock and roll.
The searing high-contrast color scheme seen here is fairly commonplace today thanks to the advent of digital color-timing technology, but what makes THREE KINGS’ groundbreaking aesthetic so impressive is how it was achieved entirely through photochemical methods.
Large portions of the film were shot on Ektachrome transparency reversal stock, and then subsequently cross-processed in the lab onto negative stock– a process so volatile and highly-unreliable that many labs refused to insure their work.
The picture is further boosted by the use of the bleach-bypass process, which leaves the silver halides that would otherwise have been washed off the emulsion to produce an extra-grainy picture with cold, dense shadows and blown-out highlights.
Russell and Sigel render the 2.35:1 frame in sweeping swaths of desert and metal tones that oscillate from washed-out to hyper-vibrant on a shot-to-shot basis, infusing the film with a crackling visual energy that’s matched by a kinetic, Scorsese-style potpourri of camera techniques like whip-pans, zooms, freeze frames, slow-motion, slow shutter speeds, and handheld and steadicam shots that blend together into an expressionistic brew of hyper-real violence.
It should be noted that Russell’s depiction of violence in the film isn’t exactly gleeful– he takes great care to establish real consequences, tamping down the conventional sonic embellishment of movie gunfire while amping up the awareness of internal carnage (seen most potently when Russell’s camera dives inside the human body to explicitly demonstrate how much wreckage a single bullet can do to its guts).
THREE KINGS’ radical approach extends to other key elements of its execution, especially within the fields of production design and music. The film was famously shot in the American Southwest, far from the war-ravaged sands of Kuwait.
Production designer Catherine Hardwicke (who, like Jonze, would later assert herself as a successful director in her own right) flawlessly recreates the distinct look of the Gulf, erecting ramshackle desert structures and adorning them with anti-Saddam graffiti.
Like the original scores that Russell commissioned for SPANKING THE MONKEY and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, THREE KINGS employs a spare suite of percussive cues written by the Coen Brothers’ regular composer, Carter Burwell.
The score does unfortunately succumb to the cliched use of a sitar to convey a Middle Eastern setting, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in the eclecticism of its bed of sourced tracks–a range of 70’s rock, 90’s hip-hop, U2, The Beach Boys, and classical music that reinforces the film’s bizarre juxtaposition of Western capitalist culture and Eastern antiquity.
Despite its stark tonal difference to Russell’s previous work, THREE KINGS deals in several of his established thematic conceits. He continues to show a great ear for dialogue and character interaction, finding nuggets of brilliant comedy in even the darkest of scenarios.
This film is his third anchored by a male protagonist, but the females remain as dominant and strongly-realized as ever– one need look no further than Nora Dunn’s tough-as-nails, take-no-bullshit reporter, who senses what Archie and his band of brothers are up to and doggedly pursues them across the intimidating landscape.
THREE KINGS also asserts itself as the film to establish one of Russell’s less-favorable directorial conceits– his reputation as a temperamental and combative collaborator. The extreme pressure of mounting a production magnitudes more expensive and complicated than his previous work seems to have brought out his worst tendencies, to the point that he got into a physical fistfight with Clooney over a disagreement about how to coax the right performance out of an extra.
His crew quickly grew tired of the outbursts and arguments that reportedly occurred on a regular basis, as well as the overlong shooting days that piled up as a result of Russell foregoing the efficiency of storyboards in favor of an improvisational style of shooting. It’s the kind of behavior that no one likes to hear coming out of a shoot, especially for an art form that depends so heavily on collaboration.
Russell’s behavior may have been outlandish and uncalled for, but his stress is certainly understandable given that the studio was drastically slashing his budget and shooting schedule as a means to mitigate the risk of his hiring in the first place.
For all its near-legendary production woes, THREE KINGS ultimately triumphs as not just a rousing bit of big-budget entertainment, but also as an intriguing examination into the existential psyche of American soldiers during an unconventional conflict and a quantum leap forward for Russell’s own artistic development.
Having grossed over twice its budget, it was the first of Russell’s features to become a substantial hit at the box office, and critics were quick to welcome his mainstream breakout into the wider cultural conversation– even President Bill Clinton reportedly liked the film so much, he screened it for friends and staff at the White House.
Naturally, the film had its detractors too– the film was understandably banned in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. SPANKING THE MONKEY and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER may have established Russell as a gifted director with a unique insight into unconventional family dynamics and inspired dramaturgy, but THREE KINGS proved him to also be an ambitious stylist who was ready to become a prominent voice in the cinematic zeitgeist.
I HEART HUCKABEES (2004)
The making of 1999’s THREE KINGS exhibited a supernova of artistic growth for its embattled director, David O. Russell. However, just as an exploding star will eventually entropy into an inward-surging black hole, so too did the 46 year-old filmmaker find himself gazing inward; caught in the grips of a personal and artistic midlife crisis that would compel him to return to his roots– indie comedies preoccupied with the topic of identity and the search to attain it.
Indeed, THREE KINGS was such a beast apart from his earlier work that Russell seemed to have lost his bearings on the direction of his artistic character. Instead of agonizing over which path to take, he decided that his next project would be about the path itself.
Drawing much of his inspiration from the teachings of his mentor Robert Thurman — a metaphysical philosopher at Columbia and father to Hollywood actress Uma Thurman– Russell crafted his fourth feature film as a biting satire on corporate “benevolence” initiatives and a face-melting comic journey into the philosophical tenets of existentialism.
Released in 2004, I HEART HUCKABEES perfected the formula Russell had been tinkering in the decade since SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994), while neatly harmonizing with the symphony of other experimental arthouse mind-trips of the era like Spike Jonze’s BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002).
Produced by Russell, Gregory Goodman, and Scott Rudin– that powerhouse mogul of prestigious auteur fare– I HEART HUCKABEES drops its anxiety-riddled pin right into the middle of a generic, contemporary cityscape (played, naturally, by Los Angeles).
First conveyed through his curse-laden interior monologue and then through the increasingly absurd exterior plot machinations he finds himself in, the story of I HEART HUCKABEES orbits around protagonist Albert Markovski, a long-haired and well-dressed green spaces advocate fighting off the self-serving designs for a new park by the Huckabees Corporation, a retail department store giant and his commercial partner on the initiative.
Played to idiosyncratic perfection by Jason Schwartzman, Albert is something of a cypher for Russell himself– both share external characteristics like a similar manner of dress and a passion for anti-corporate activism, as well as interior traits like a crippling identity crisis.
To help regain his faith in himself, he enlists the services of the Jaffes– a pair of self-styled “existential detectives” who will observe his every waking moment in an effort to find the root of his problems. Dustin Hoffman plays Bernard Jaffe, the hang-loose yin to the buttoned-up yang of his wife, Vivian (sleekly embodied by Lily Tomlin in her second performance for Russell after 1996’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER).
Both patient and prognosticator are foiled by their inverse reflections– Markovski by a coldly ambitious and smarmy Huckabees sales executive named Brand Strand (Jude Law, using his effortless good looks to beautifully ironic effect), and the Jaffes by Isabelle Huppert’s Catherine Vauban, a French author and fellow philosopher who claims the dark power of nihilism as her home turf.
The philosophical tug-of-war between these five characters also sparks a chain reaction of existential trauma for THREE KINGS headliner Mark Wahlberg’s emotionally fragile firefighter, Tommy Corn, and Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, who, after years of objectification in front of the camera as the Huckabees spokesmodel, has become self-aware and demands to be recognized for the flawed and intelligent person she is (the moment where she venomously disses her longtime employer as “Fuckabees” is one of the film’s best laughs).
In a bid to stuff the story with absurdity at every turn, I HEART HUCKABEES also features appearances by Hitchcock Blonde Teppi Hedren as a combative member of Markovski’s coalition, Isla Fischer as Dawn’s air headed replacement, a running joke about Shania Twain culminating in a surprise cameo from the singer herself, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER’s Richard Jenkins as a bearded avatar of the hypocritical middle-class values that rest at the convergence of Anglo-Saxan Christianity and suburbia, and even the film debut of Jonah Hill as Jenkins’ porky brat of a son.
The cinematography of I HEART HUCKABEES marks a return to the understated and straightforward patina of Russell’s first two features. Shot in the anamorphic aspect ratio on 35mm film by cinematographer Peter Deming, the visual style adopts an approach not unlike that of Paul Thomas Anderson’s from the same period.
Indeed, the influence of PTA– specifically PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE— is embedded into the DNA of Russell’s formalistic camerawork and the offsetting of a muted, neutral palette with splashes of bright primary color.
Russell further echoes the conceits of Anderson’s anxious romance with his hiring of composer Jon Brion, who brings his signature eclecticism to bear in the writing of a whimsical score played in the minor key and marked by the use of unconventional instruments like the Chamberlin- an electronic keyboard from the 1960’s that emulates other instruments via recorded tape.
This isn’t to say that Russell’s aesthetic here outright steals from Anderson; rather, he uses these conceits as building blocks for the foundation of his own take. Towards that end, he infuses the film with a sense of magical realism, echoing Bernard’s establishing explanation of “the blanket truth of everything” by employing pixelated tiles floating away from their fixed position in the frame and other visual “glitches” that hint at the hidden reality that lies beyond what we can physically see.
All of Russell’s films up to this point have been about identity in some capacity, with the plots boiling down to a simple question with a maddeningly, elusively complex answer. SPANKING THE MONKEY asked: “who am I?”, while FLIRTING WITH DISASTER wondered: “where do I come from?”.
THREE KINGS stared at the wreckage of war smoldering around it and mused: “what do I do now?”. I HEART HUCKABEES poses, perhaps, the ultimate question: “what does this all mean?”. The characters find themselves adrift in the current between two opposing philosophies: “everything is connected”, and “nothing means anything”.
Russell mines these heady, unwieldy ideas for every ounce of comic potential, charging the film’s volatile familial relationships and wittily profane interactions with a crackling thematic energy. Perhaps the idea that I HEART HUCKABEES explores with the most resonance is that of “false narrative”– the fake realities we wield as armor against our deepest insecurities.
Our false narratives can become so real to us that we shut out anything that might challenge it– even if it’s in our best interests. There’s a pivotal scene in which Albert is ejected from his own coalition, his idealism crushed by the ignorance of those unwilling to listen. As an idealist, he stands by his principles, in stark contrast to the Huckabees Corporation’s nihilistic abandonment of them in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.
He learns the hard lessons that Capitalism will always trump Altruism, because it has no regard for values or principles beyond inflating its bottom line. In light of the 2016 US Election, I HEART HUCKABEES takes on a renewed resonance, its teachings having gone sorely unheeded.
We need look no further than former Arkansas governor and failed GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to see this willful ignorance at play in our own reality– when asked for his reaction to the film in 2004, he is quoted as saying: “It was as if somebody forgot to give the actors a script and said, ‘For the next two hours, just go out there and do something.”
Ignoring the numerous things that are inherently wrong in that statement, Huckabee’s reaction illustrates a profound unwillingness or inability to engage an idea in debate or conversation, exhibiting instead an insecure tendency to regain power by discrediting the integrity of the person expressing the idea.
This mentality affects both sides of the aisle, poisoning our values and identities with the slime of hypocrisy and derailing any semblance of rational discourse with a false narrative. The film also shows how these false narratives can trickle down from the corner offices to Main Street, staging a heated argument between Schwartzman, Wahlberg and Jenkins’ characters during dinner.
In elaborating on what he does for a living and his own existential crisis, Albert inevitably pokes holes in Jenkins’ own false narrative, revealing his inherent hypocrisies. Jenkins wraps himself up in the armor of patriotism and Christian righteousness as an example of True American Morality, but Albert highlights how incompatible those values are with the capitalistic convictions he also carries.
Jenkins can’t accept this truth, shutting his guests out of the conversation and out of his house; denying himself an opportunity for growth and enlightenment.
The usage of Schwartzman’s character as a cypher for Russell himself means the story, in manners both oblique and direct, can be read as an autobiographical expression of his own artistic unmooring following the tumultuous, hard-earned success of THREE KINGS.
In making that film, the former activist and scholar had become a part of the Hollywood machine; toiling away in the belly of a beast that had little regard for his own artistic agenda. Russell’s personal experience at the intersection of capitalism and the arts colors I HEART HUCKABEE’s philosophical conflict, showing how the two forces both repel and attract each other.
Russell places great emphasis on how corporations co-opt artists, illustrated in Brand’s pursuit of pop star Shania Twain for their greenspace initiative as a means to distract consumers with beauty and flash while he advances the commercial interests of his employer.
It’s not a stretch to venture that Russell arguably felt this way himself, having been an in-demand indie director enlisted to helm a big-budget studio picture, only to discover they were only interested in the cultural street cred that came with his name.
Now, that may be a bit unfair to the studio, considering Russell developed the story himself and they ultimately stood behind his vision, but that didn’t mean egos weren’t bruised and passions went un-stoked in the process. Indeed, Russell’s passion as a filmmaker is evident in every frame– and beyond too, judging by the set videos that surfaced a few years after the film’s release showing Russell and Tomlin screaming nasty epithets and hurling middle fingers at each other like nuclear bombs.
These tapes cemented Russell’s reputation as a temperamental and difficult director, but it’s worth noting that Tomlin– much like Clooney on THREE KINGS— still held him in high regard afterwards despite bearing the brunt of his ire, perhaps a (begrudging) professional respect built on the bedrock of his artistic integrity.
I HEART HUCKABEES was a modest success at the box office, opening with the standard indie strategy of an initial limited release before a wider rollout. Reviews were decidedly mixed, leaning toward the positive. Despite its rather unremarkable reception, the film has gone on to accumulate a great deal of respect as one of the better films of its decade– if not in the top twenty maybe, certainly the top forty.
Russell himself regards I HEART HUCKABEES as his least favorite film, which is understandable given that it finds him actively working out his personal mid-life crisis in full view of an audience of millions. As Russell’s career has played out in the years since, it’s become more apparent that his so-called “midlife crisis movie” is really a trilogy, of which I HEART HUCKABEES is only the middle chapter.
This phase– marked by decreasing returns and the public airing of Russell’s production grief– had unwittingly started with THREE KINGS, and would continue on towards its nadir: the disastrous shoot of a romantic comedy called NAILED in 2008, which would only see release in 2015 under the title of ACCIDENTAL LOVE and without Russell’s directorial stamp of approval.
His fumbling through the fog of existential confusion had unwittingly led him into the wilderness, and it would be quite some time yet until he emerged as an artist reborn.
SOLDIERS PAY (2004)
The invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration in 2003 became something of a flashpoint for American filmmakers, especially among the politically-minded. Like the relationship of 70’s cinema to the Vietnam War, much of Hollywood’s cinematic output during the mid-aughts could arguably be interpreted as some kind of reflection of our divided feelings towards the conflict.
This mood wasn’t new to director David O. Russell; he had been grappling with our complicated relationship with the region since for quite some time– at the very least since 1999’s THREE KINGS.
That film– an absurdist comedy disguised in action fatigues that concerns three soldiers in Operation Desert Storm going AWOL to hunt for Saddam Hussein’s secret stash of gold bullion– gained newfound relevance in the wake of President George W. Bush’s shock-and-awe campaign to unseat the Iraqi dictator and install a permanent democracy.
Ever the astute capitalists, Warner Brothers drew up plans to re-release THREE KINGS back into theaters with some kind of additional component linking it to the current conflict. Russell also saw an opportunity here, but making changes to the movie was simply out of the question.
Instead, he proposed SOLDIERS PAY— a short documentary that would explore the complex sentiments about the Iraq War as told by the servicemen and women who actually lived it.
Taking its name from the William Faulkner novel of the almost-same name (in subtly omitting the apostrophe from “Soldier’s Pay”, Russell changes the intent of the phrase entirely), SOLDIERS PAY unfolds in a series of unadorned talking head testimonials from soldiers running the spectrum of opinion.
Whereas most documentaries of this nature aim to convince the viewer of an underlying conviction, SOLDIERS PAY is simply content to conversate with its subjects. Russell and his co-director Tricia Regan capture the piece on consumer-grade, standard-definition digital video, employing footage from the front lines only sparsely in a bid to emphasize the soldiers’ testimonials.
The cumulative effect is a sprawling, yet compact, oral history of a controversial campaign that abstains from arriving at a complete ideological conclusion. Indeed, Russell’s own sentiments are best expressed in a quote he made around the time of the film’s release:
“Every Iraqi I know is glad that Saddam is gone… is Iraq better off without Saddam? Yes. Is the world better off with this war? Not sure, don’t think so”. SOLDIERS PAY is very much an appropriate companion piece to THREE KINGS, to the extent that Russell even finds a real-life anecdote similar to the treasure hunt plot of his fictional feature.
The film also provides Russell an opportunity to invoke his background in political activism– he had hoped to release the film before the 2004 Presidential Election, desiring to make something of a difference in a decision that was largely seen as a referendum on America’s foray into Iraq.
Unfortunately, Warner Brothers got cold feet from the controversy surrounding the piece and dumped it at the last moment. Russell eventually got his wish when IFC picked up the rights and aired it on the eve of the election, but whatever immediate difference he hoped to make was negated by Bush’s decisive re-election.
He may have lost the battle, but he had gained crucial ground in the war for America’s hearts and minds– and he did it by documenting several new narratives to counter the government-pushed false one that led us to war in the first place.
ACCIDENTAL LOVE (2008/2015)
For the most part, watching a given director’s films in chronological order and analyzing them for the purposes of THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an immersive and revealing way to study his or her artistic growth. Sometimes, however, it can pose a puzzling dilemma– especially in cases where the film was released several years or more after it was actually filmed.
Even more so in the scenario that’s every director’s dreaded nightmare: a film that turns out so horrible that the best course of action is to remove one’s name from the credits entirely. Do you even include it in the curriculum? If so, how? Over the course of several years and the study of several different directors, the best course of action has always seemed to be to taking on each cinematic anomaly on a case by case basis.
In the case of director David O. Russell, it’s absolutely imperative to examine how the growth of his artistic aesthetic and the trajectory of his career narrative is affected by his intended follow-up to 2003’s I HEART HUCKABEES— the god-awful ACCIDENTAL LOVE (2015).
There’s no mincing words on this one; ACCIDENTAL LOVE is an atrocious train wreck where every artistic decision, from Russell’s down the line, is arguably the wrong one. It’s a bumbling, ill-advised wannabe satire about the state of American healthcare circa 2008, but by the time it was finally released nearly eight years later, its central storyline had been made so profoundly irrelevant with the passage of the Affordable Care Act that the distributor could only bill the film as a romantic comedy.
Even in the hypothetical scenario of Obamacare’s failure to become law, ACCIDENTAL LOVE would still fail as a political satire thanks to is disgusting oversimplification of very complicated issues and policy. It even fails as a romantic comedy– it’s not very romantic, and it’s definitely not funny.
It’s the unequivocal low point in Russell’s career, a film so bad that his name won’t be found anywhere within the credits. Nonetheless, ACCIDENTAL LOVE is an important experience, if not a film, as Russell’s abject failure here sets the stage for a roaring comeback that would install him as a permanent fixture on the awards circuit throughout the 2010’s.
ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s troubled production history is well documented, taken down as a cautionary testament for anyone attempting to mount a film at any stage in their career. The film started its life as an adaptation by Kristin Gore (daughter to Big Al) of her own novel, “Sammy’s Hill”.
Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher of Red Wagon Productions oversaw Gore and co-writer’s Matthew Silverstein & Dave Jeser’s work on the screenplay, now titled NAILED. As an independent comedy wearing its political activist heart on its sleeve, the project no doubt seemed like an ideal fit for Russell, who was able to assemble together an impressive cast of A-list stars thanks to his respectable resume and a healthy budget of $26 million from upstart production company Capitol Films and its emerging figurehead, David Bergstein (2).
As production commenced in the spring of 2008, It became increasingly apparent to cast and crew that their financier’s pockets weren’t as deep as they promised, and a continued series of non-payments prompted walkouts from headliners Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal.
The situation deteriorated so much that the unions eventually had to get involved, leading to production shutting down no less than fourteen (FOURTEEN!!) times. Russell and his producing team didn’t buy Capitol’s flimsy excuse that the 2008 financial crisis was to blame for their money woes, and thus insulated themselves from Bergstein releasing an unfinished product against their will by scheduling the pivotal inciting sequence at the end of the shoot – without it, there is no sensible story to speak of. Ergo, no movie.
This plan worked in Russell’s favor, as he ultimately never shot it. By the time reshoots resumed after the unions pulled their support and initiated another shutdown, he had already disentangled himself from the project permanently.
Even had production gone swimmingly, it’s still surprising that executives found the story of ACCIDENTAL LOVE interesting enough to even take it that far. The first of many cliches places the action in a small Indiana town, where a pretty but somewhat clueless waitress named Alice Eckle is quite literally skating through life.
Played sufficiently by the underrated Jessica Biel, she’s a small-town girl who loves her family, her job, and her boyfriend– a mustachioed cop named Scott (James Marsden, an inspired choice) who is well aware of the fact that he’s the most handsome bachelor in town.
One fateful night, he takes her to the fanciest restaurant in town with the intent of proposing, but a renovation project near their table sidelines his proposal when a worker with a nail gun accidentally tumbles from his ladder and fires a huge nail directly into Biel’s cranium.
Seemingly fine despite the fact she has a giant spike in her brain, she rushes to the hospital to get it out. There’s just one small problem– she doesn’t have health insurance, and the cost for the operation is so absurdly high that she or her family can’t pay the bill and her intimidated new fiancée breaks off the engagement.
It doesn’t help that the operation wouldn’t be covered if she got a new policy, since it would be technically considered a “pre-existing” condition. All seems lost until she sees an interview on television with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Howard Birdwell, a plucky young congressman from her district who is passionate about healthcare reform and in need of a strong case to push before Congress.
The newly-inspired Alice makes the trek to DC, accompanied by a strange entourage that includes Tracy Morgan, who is essentially playing himself. She tracks down Howard and makes her plea, energizing him with not just her words but her newfound nymphomania (an unexpected side effect of the accident).
Their frenzied love affair constitutes the “romantic comedy” aspect of the marketing, with the “political satire component realized in their battle with Catherine Keener’s villainously conservative Majority Whip, Representative Pam Hendrickson.
Also along for the ride is an eclectic cast comprised of the likes of Paul Reubens as Hendrickson’s conniving assistant, Bill Hader as Alice’s pompous surgeon, Kirstie Alley as Alice’s veterinarian aunt, and James Brolin as the Reagan-esque House Speaker whose unexpected death is exploited by Alice and Birdwell in their fight for healthcare reform.
Russell and his cinematographer Max Malkin gift ACCIDENTAL LOVE with a strong visual style, albeit a clunky one that feels a little out of place; chafing against the tone struck by the final edit done in his absence– like a stylistic Frankenstein that doesn’t know what it wants or is meant to be.
The 1.85:1 35mm film frame deals in a strange, discordant mix of strong color, a pleasing grain structure, elegant camerawork, and evocative lighting that’s immediately compromised by sophomoric slapstick comedy, over-exaggerated performances, clunky cuts, and ill-advised canted angles that almost float like a deflating balloon.
Production Designer Judy Becker provides one of ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s few unified aspects in its retro midcentury Americana aesthetic. It’s safe to say that Russell’s collaborations with the department heads stopped with those present for the shoot, leaving those in the post-production process sorely lacking his directorial input.
This includes credited composer John Swihart, who apes the idiosyncratic tenor of Jon Brion’s score for I HEART HUCKABEES with an undermixed suite of colorless muzak. The finished cut also includes several on-the-nose rap and R&B needledrops whose very inclusion is curious, considering what no doubt must have been the substantial licensing cost imposed on the crash-strapped production.
Despite disowning the picture and removing his name from it entirely, a few traces of Russell’s artistic character remain in ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s DNA. For instance, the family interactions between Alice and her parents possesses the same kind of breathless, Scorsese-inspired kinetic energy as similar moments from I HEART HUCKABEES or FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996).
The health insurance reform plot provides ample fodder for Russell to channel his inner activist, and he clearly relishes making numerous pointed references to the government’s hyping of a flashy moon base over a sorely-needed service like quality health care.
In 2010, Bergstein and another financier, Ron Tutor, were eventually able to buy back NAILED from foreclosure action and assemble an incomplete cut from the footage they had (3). Tutor asked Russell to return and finish the picture, but they ultimately couldn’t come to terms on a new deal– he balked at Tutor’s request to impose pay cuts that would have seen his Red Wagon production team’s fees cut in half.
Russell and his producers walked off forever, but the cast wasn’t so fortunate, as their contracts obliged them to return for reshoots under the supervision of an unnamed director who was most definitely not Russell. Expectedly, Capitol went bankrupt a year later, and it looked like NAILED would never see the light of day.
Things changed yet again in 2014, when indie distributor Millennium Entertainment bought the film and recut it under the supervision of ex-Capitol executive Kia Jam. This new cut, the one finally released in theaters in 2015, bore the final astonishingly dense title, ACCIDENTAL LOVE.
When he learned the news, Russell worked to prevent this deeply-embarrassing episode from further tainting his career, lobbying the DGA to remove his credit and replace it with the fictional pseudonym, Stephen Greene.
ACCIDENTAL LOVE is a film that died many deaths before its completion, and it suffered one last humiliating death at the box office, opening in limited release to the tune of $4500 after its initial VOD offering. Critical reception was understandably, overwhelmingly negative– the film has ossified at a 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, having been dumped onto the home video market only a month after its theatrical release.
The career downturn that had, ironically enough, started with the relatively successful THREE KINGS (1999) and continued on towards I HEART HUCKABEES hit rock bottom with ACCIDENTAL LOVE. Russell’s production woes had only increased with each successive work, and it’s harder to think of a more agonizing production experience with so little to show for it than ACCIDENTAL LOVE.
The only direction left for Russell to go was up– and up he would, valiantly reforming himself into the kind of esteemed director he no doubt envisioned himself to be. The lessons learned on ACCIDENTAL LOVE are crucial to the understanding of Russell’s artistic growth, as it was the film to save to his career from its dizzying tailspin and allow him to mount one of the better comeback stories in recent cinematic history.
THE FIGHTER (2010)
Whereas most people are lucky enough to weather their mid-life crisis In the safety of their own home, director David O. Russell had the distinct misfortune of having his play out onscreen in front of a large, discerning, and increasingly-disapproving audience.
THREE KINGS (1999) was a critical and financial success, but the process of making it was a tremendously difficult and demoralizing ordeal. I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) gave Russell a platform to exorcise his existential demons, but found only a handful of supporters to empathize with his struggle.
Then there’s the case of NAILED, the production of which was such an unmitigated catastrophe that Russell disowned it entirely when it was finally released in 2015 under the title ACCIDENTAL LOVE. On top of it all, his own celebrity as a tempestuous, combative, and even verbally abusive filmmaker had arguably overshadowed the cultural profile of any one of his films.
It was a sustained, nearly decade-long run that would all too easily sink any filmmaker regardless of talent, yet Russell came through the fire as something of a new man. His artistic convictions reinforced, his entry into his 50’s would find him finally hitting his stride, delivering a string of critical and commercial hits that would rejuvenate his career.
This new era began in earnest with Russell’s sixth official feature, a gritty boxing drama called THE FIGHTER (2010). The story of the film’s making is almost as long and arduous a struggle as its protagonist’s comeback narrative.
Taking its foundational inspiration from the 1995 HBO documentary HIGH ON CRACK STREET: LOST LIVES IN LOWELL, the screenplay (credited to Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson) serves as a dramatic recreation of welterweight boxer Micky Ward’s quest for the title and his complicated relationship to his crack-addicted older brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund.
Mark Wahlberg– a personal friend of Micky’s because of their shared working-class upbringing in Greater Boston– became passionately involved with the project early on, shepherding it through the grueling interminability of its development period. The lengthy list of credited screenwriters and producers (which includes Wahlberg, Tamasy,
Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Dorothy Aufiero & David Hoberman) is a clear sign of THE FIGHTER’s long residency in development limbo, which initially saw director Darren Aronofsky attached for some time before he left to go make 2008’s THE WRESTLER.
The idea of hiring Russell reportedly came from cast member Christian Bale, who had wanted to work with the director and utilized Wahlberg’s personal connection from his work on THREE KINGS and I HEART HUCKABEES.
Understandably, Russell was in dire need of a great story to get back on track– his career essentially in tatters, THE FIGHTER’s against-all-odds comeback plot afforded him a redemption narrative of his own. Any good comeback story requires for the protagonist at some point in the story to go home, and for Russell, this would necessitate his re-embrace with his scrappy, independent roots.
The year is 1993; the place, the gritty working-class Boston suburb of Lowell, MA. Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a middling welterweight boxer who has messily entangled his personal life with his professional career by making his chainsmoking 80’s-queen mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), his manager, and his crackhead has-been half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Bale), his trainer.
Tired of being a stepping stone for other, better fighters who would use him as an easy win to ascend the bracket, Micky has decided that he wants that title for himself. Micky’s story is a boxing narrative as old as the sport itself, but THE FIGHTER makes the yarn compelling by surrounding him with a conniving, deluded and self-advantageous entourage that can’t help but foil him at every turn.
This role is the type that Wahlberg was born to play, and his enthusiasm for the material is evident at every turn. In addition to getting his hands dirty with producing, he also waived his upfront salary and maintained a rigorous training regimen throughout the project’s endless gestation period– even as he was off working on other films.
With the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), it’s hard to think of any other film in which he’s been better. His performance is anchored by an amazing cast delivering career-best performances– indeed, THE FIGHTER marks the beginning of Russell’s reputation for consistently directing his cast to award-worthy performances.
Bale took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Dicky Eklund, through which he utterly transforms himself into an alarmingly-scrawny crack addict who tragically believes his own boxing comeback is around the corner.
The title of THE FIGHTER could arguably apply just as much to Dicky, who battles tooth and nail to deliver his kid brother to glory despite the crippling liability he engenders with his rampant narcotics abuse. The sheer magnetism of Bale’s performance is undeniable, but Leo proves just as formidable a force in her role as Micky’s mom-ager, Alice Ward.
She gives a gloriously capitalistic, peacocking performance that’s underscored by a mother’s heartbreaking compassion for her children, rightfully earning an Oscar win all her own in the Best Supporting Actress category (despite the controversy surrounding her active campaigning for the honor– an unconventional move at best that saw her take out her own vanity ads in the trades).
Russell’s cast as a whole oozes as much authenticity as its real-life Lowell locales and blue-collar denizens, effortlessly mixing with key participants in Micky Ward’s real-life drama like trainer Mickey O’Keefe and boxing icon Sugar Ray Leonard.
THE FIGHTER announces the arrival of Russell’s retooled visual aesthetic, which injects the film with a dynamic, cinema verite energy that’s similar to THREE KINGS, albeit without the radical color processing. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, in his first American film, collaborates with Russell to bring a fluid, loose, and organic approach to the camerawork.
Despite shooting with spherical lenses, the filmmakers impose the 2.35:1 aspect ratio upon the 35mm film frame to infuse Micky’s story with the feeling of an epic. Russell’s handheld camera effortlessly captures Hoytema’s natural lighting schemes and production designer Judy Becker’s muted color palette, giving the picture a documentary realism that echoes the production of the HBO documentary so pivotal to Dickey’s character arc.
Russell also employs an inspired technique that differentiates THE FIGHTER’s boxing sequences from all the others of its ilk while simultaneously solving a major production problem. Faced with the challenge of needing to shoot all these fights in only 3 days — when a conventional studio picture would normally need about 20 — Russell turned to the actual video camera used by HBO to shoot boxing matches back in the 90’s.
Nearly every aspect of these sequences, including close-up dialogue exchanges, is rendered in this flat, low-resolution format that’s riddled with interlacing artifacts; and yet, it works. Reading like a blend of dramatic recreation and eyewitness archival footage, this approach hammers home THE FIGHTER’s sense of realism in a language that the audience, having probably watched boxing matches on television, can intuitively understand.
THE FIGHTER’s rollicking kinetic energy finds a complementary companion in its soundtrack, with an ethereal original score by Michael Brook composed of ambient tones, and a sprawling suite of needledrops that span the gamut of “classic rock”.
The influence of Martin Scorsese is extremely palpable throughout THE FIGHTER, perhaps no more so during a training montage that Russell syncs to the confident strut of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”.
The chosen tracks are appropriate to the story’s period, save for one anachronistic inclusion: 2009’s “How You Like Me Now?” by The Heavy, which Russell uses as a recurring, triumphant theme celebrating Micky’s rise to glory.
Indeed, THE FIGHTER (as well as Russell’s subsequent output from this period) owes a great debt to Scorsese– an ironic development considering that Wahlberg unsuccessfully lobbied his THE DEPARTED (2006) director to take on the film so many years prior (1).
A foundational influence that’s evident as far back as his 1994 debut, SPANKING THE MONKEY, Russell channels Uncle Marty’s spirit more directly here than ever before. And yet, he manages to avoid wholesale rip-off by employing his thematic fascinations to make the material his own– not that he had to try too hard, given that the story is fundamentally deals in the core themes of his filmography: familial conflict and identity crisis.
Micky’s narrative best encapsulates the former theme with his struggle to keep his family/business team from sabotaging his shot at the title, while Dicky embodies the latter in his growing realization that his addiction to crack has caught him in a death grip and his days as a champion fighter are far behind him.
Finally released in 2010 after an eternity in development hell, THE FIGHTER’s embattled rise to glory parallels its rising-phoenix narrative. The film was such a commercial and critical success, in fact, that Wahlberg is currently development on a sequel that would further chronicle Micky’s stormy boxing career.
For Russell personally, THE FIGHTER sees him finally shake off his mid-career slump and deliver on the promise of his early films. His work here would result in seven Oscar nominations, including his first one for directing.
With its twin wins for Bale and Leo in the Supporting Actor/Actress qualities, THE FIGHTER also marks the transformation of Russell’s reputation from combative hothead to an awards-circuit mainstay who consistently delivers nominations and accolades for his dedicated cast.
Going from ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s abject fiasco of a shoot to the harrowing resonance of THE FIGHTER is no easy feat– indeed, the title of the film could ostensibly apply to Russell just as much as it does its narrative protagonists. The celebration of the film come Oscar night was an occasion that many directors would count as the unmitigated high point of their career– but in Russell’s case, he was only just getting started.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)
The long, languishing period between 2004’s I HEART HUCKABEES and 2010’s THE FIGHTER yielded little in the way of creative output from director David O. Russell– NAILED’s failed shoot in 2008 notwithstanding.
As such, he had ample time to develop a variety of projects, and the sudden success of THE FIGHTER would enable the making of these other projects in quick succession– one of which was an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook”.
He had become involved with the project via Sydney Pollack after the Weinstein Company procured the galleys, its heartfelt exploration of mental health connecting with Russell thanks to his own son’s struggle with OCD and bipolar disorder. Initially conceiving of the film as a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel, he found the intended balance of drama, comedy, and romance elusive, generating over twenty-five drafts in five years.
At another point, Russell’s frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg became attached to the project, only to drop out before the film gathered enough momentum to finally come together. Shot at breakneck pace over a period of just thirty-three days, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK continues Russell’s re-embrace of scrappy indie filmmaking methods as a way to better facilitate his creative inspiration.
Set in a blue-collar suburb outside of Philadelphia, the story concerns a burnt-out ex-teacher named Pat (Bradley Cooper), who has just emerged from an eight-month stint in a psychiatric hospital after the discovery of his wife’s infidelity caused him to suffer a mental breakdown.
Cooper delivers a breakout performance here, bringing subtle nuance to what could otherwise be a broad caricature of an anxious man suffering from bipolar disorder and a crippling inability to get over his unfaithful ex-wife.
Russell’s casting of Cooper is inspired, unearthing the simmering anger behind his previous bit roles in other comedies and harnessing it to empower Cooper with the necessary conviction to assert himself as a viable lead and secure his first Oscar nomination.
Pat’s ill-advised attempts to win his wife back brings a fresh, invigorating force into his life– a widow and amateur dancer named Tiffany. Played by Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-winning performance, Tiffany is quite the unconventional romantic love interest: a cynical and bracingly honest young woman with poor social skills who is frequently clad in black as an externalization of her grief.
Despite her personal infatuation with Pat, she agrees to help him re-establish contact with his ex-wife, but only on one condition: he must be her partner for a big upcoming dance contest– the practicing for which Pat will eventually come to realize that it is Tiffany, not his ex-wife, who holds the key to his existential salvation.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK marks the beginning of Lawrence and Russell’s intimate creative partnership, with the actress going on to star in his two subsequent films and proclaiming at the 2016 Golden Globes that she wished to be buried alongside her beloved director (a statement that his real partner, Holly Davis, was surely thrilled to hear).
Lawrence is undoubtedly the life force of the film, and her Oscar recognition is well-deserved (as it was for her other co-nominees), but a small point of contention remains about her casting; only 21 years old during the time of filming, Lawrence is conceivably too young to play a character supposedly in her mid-30’s.
However, her inherent physicality as a person projects a wisdom well beyond her years, which Russell uses to his advantage here. While it works in this particular case, it would establish a tendency to stretch the bounds of credulity by casting her in roles far above her age bracket– a strategy which most recently showed its inherent flaws with her headlining performance in 2015’s JOY (3).
Russell surrounds his two leads with an eclectic and diverse supporting cast, all of whom effortlessly slip into a blue-collar Philly brogue while reinforcing his reputation as a director who delivers major awards heat for his performers.
Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro play Pat’s supportive but hovering parents, with DeNiro in particular being a crucial foil to Cooper and Lawrence’s burgeoning romance. An old-fashioned “tough love” kind of guy, Pat Sr. is an Eagles super fan with undiagnosed OCD tendencies.
Both he and Weaver would also be honored with Supporting Actor/Actress Oscar nominations, making SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK the first film since 1981’s REDS to be honored in all four acting categories. The nomination would be especially meaningful for DeNiro, reminding us why he’s such a silver screen legend after a long string of forgettable payday performances in lousy films.
Russell’s casting of Martin Scorsese’s former muse brings him ever closer to the aesthetic character of his key influence, making for a fruitful collaboration that, like Lawrence, would also be reprised across his subsequent two features.
Chris Tucker makes one of his extremely rare film appearances as Danny, Pat’s motormouth buddy and fellow patient from the psychiatric hospital. Shea Whigham continues to deliver his string of consistently excellent and understated performances with his role as Pat’s preppy and put-together older brother, Jake.
Finally, there’s the interesting coupling of Jon Ortiz and Julia Stiles as Ronnie and Veronica, respectively– Ronnie being Pat’s buddy who can’t help but be upbeat even while the suffering weight of domesticity is causing him to fray at the edges, and Veronica being Tiffany’s older sister and a veritable ice queen with little else but thinly-veiled contempt for her husband’s best friend.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK reprises the handheld immediacy of THE FIGHTER’s visual aesthetic, this time utilizing the talents of DP Masanobu Takayanagi to create something of a master-class in subdued, but impeccable, cinematography.
Takayanagi and Russell render the grainy 2.35:1 35mm film frame with muted autumnal colors and naturalistic light. The camera mainly alternates between the organic chaos of handheld photography and the fluid observationalism of the Steadicam, always keeping its eyeline on the same level as the actors in order to create a visceral and immersive experience for the audience.
Russell’s frequent production designer Judy Becker effortlessly conveys the authentic flavor of blue-collar Philadelphia, from the sleepy residential communities to the rowdy tailgate parties just outside Lincoln Financial Field.
In a rare departure from his residency in director Tim Burton’s post-production pipeline, composer Danny Elfman delivers an understated but complementary score that captures the film’s melancholic, bittersweet character.
His cues pepper the wider musical landscape of licensed needle-drops from a wide range of acts like The White Stripes, Johnny Cash, and Dave Brubeck– the most prominent of which is Stevie Wonder, who’s feel-good love ballad “My Cherie Amour” is employed to glorious effect as a trigger for Cooper’s emotional meltdowns.
Russell’s sense of humor is unique amongst other filmmakers in that he tends to ferret out nuggets of unlikely comedy from unexpected situations. Just as SPANKING THE MONKEY (1994) or FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996) found absurdity within the perils of incest and adoption, respectively, so too does SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK explore the topic of mental health through humor without coming across as tone-deaf or insensitive to those who suffer from it.
It’s an extremely fine line to walk, one in which Russell walks with the effortless empathy of someone with a personal connection to the material. It also helps that the story is well within his wheelhouse, allowing him to exercise his well-developed intellectual muscles via signature themes like identity crisis, familial conflict and the peculiar social dynamics of working-class Americans along the Eastern seaboard.
He even gets the chance to incorporate his roots in literary academia, turning a scene of Pat reading (and violently reacting to) an Ernest Hemingway novel into a hilarious character bit.
If THE FIGHTER announced Russell as a force to be reckoned with on the awards circuit, then the similarly-warm reception to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK two years later cemented it. After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the film went on to strong box office returns and widespread critical acclaim.
For the second time in a row, Russell secured a nomination for himself in the Best Directing category at the Academy Awards– one of eight total nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Editing. Lawrence may have been the only member of the company to take home gold that night, but the others could take solace in the fact they had made something of a modern classic.
The undisputed success of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK made it clear for all to see: Russell’s comeback was officially in full swing, and he was here to stay.
AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)
A few years ago, I was working as an assistant to a talent and literary manager at a powerhouse firm on the Sunset Strip. On any given day, I might have a brush with one of the world’s most famous faces, or listen in on a phone pitch for a project that would eventually come to dominate the cultural conversation.
The experience was like being directly plugged into the erratic industry rhythms that fuel those breathless Deadline Hollywood headlines, but my omniscience extended only as far as my particular wing of the office. Just down the hall, there existed an impenetrable veil of secrets in the form of the production company that shared office space with us– Atlas Entertainment.
Led by veteran producer Charles Roven, this small outfit of hungry and ambitious development executives was busy putting together some of the biggest and most high-profile projects in town– when I worked there, for instance, they were actively prepping and shooting the epic capper to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).
Despite the script being on a file on a physical computer only a few yards away from me, the exchange of information was so totally blocked at that corporate border that the script might as well have been stored away in a vault at Fort Knox.
I mention this little bit of personal history because during this time, they were also prepping another film that would dominate the cinematic landscape of its time: director David O. Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). Roven and Russell had collaborated once before, on 1999’s THREE KINGS, and their paths were crossing again now that Russell had ascended to the plane of sustained awards circuit prestige.
His strengths with dynamic characterization no doubt seemed an ideal fit with Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay, which had scored highly during its time on the prestigious Black List under the title “American Bullshit”.
Singer structured the story as a relatively straightforward procedural about the FBI’s ABSCAM operation in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, a sprawling sting that targeted corrupt politicians and businessmen by posing as a fake Arabian financial company willing to exchange cash for political favor.
To say Russell “fictionalized” his credited rewrite upon coming aboard is, to put it mildly, a bit of an understatement– he fully applied his creative license to reinvent real-life figures into exaggerated cinematic versions that unabashedly flirt with caricature.
It’s an indulgent move, to be sure, but if there was ever a more appropriate film to indulge, it’s AMERICAN HUSTLE: the 24-carat gold-encrusted capstone to Russell’s loose-hewn prestige trilogy about, in his words, “ordinary people living passionately”.
It would take no less than four producers– Roven, Richard Suckle, Jonathan Gordon, and Annapurna’s Megan Ellison– to help Russell realize his vision: a sprawling, campy crime chronicle in the spirit of Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990) or CASINO (1995).
Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking AMERICAN HUSTLE belongs to Scorsese’s own canon– Russell takes the venerated auteur’s influence that has run like a simmering undercurrent beneath his films and embraces it full-bore here.
The overall effect, as FilmDrunk writer Vince Mancini put it most aptly in his review, is “punk rock Scorsese”. While it does illustrate Russell’s favor of character over story, the GOODFELLAS-style multi-character voiceover technique does little to bring crystal clarity to Russell’s convoluted plot about two cons roped into an over-complicated FBI sting targeting corrupt politicians in the late 70’s.
Thankfully, it’s easy enough to simply lose oneself in the decadent performances of his cast, which combines key performers from THE FIGHTER (Christian Bale & Amy Adams) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, & Robert DeNiro) to formalize the roster of Russell’s repertory ensemble.
In his second collaboration with Russell, Christian Bale reinforces his reputation as an actor willing to utterly transform himself by doing a complete 180 from his dramatic weight loss on THE FIGHTER. To embody the role of Irving Rosenfeld, a sleazy conman masquerading as a legitimate businessman, Bale atrophies into a proto-Trump with an impressive beer gut and a gnarly combover atop his bald dome.
AMERICAN HUSTLE is ostensibly told through his point of view, detailing his meeting and subsequent romance and scam-empire building with Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a fiery redhead with a killer fake British accent and a ferocious confidence externalized by her wardrobe of blouses with tumbling cleavage.
She’s the polar opposite of Irving’s unstable lush of a wife, Rosalyn, played with such gusto and reckless abandon by Jennifer Lawrence that we can overlook the gut feeling that she’s probably a touch too young for what the character demands. Bradley Cooper threatens to the steal the whole show as the tempestuously unhinged FBI agent with a glorious perm, Richie DiMaso.
A bubbling cauldron of cocksure swagger, impotent rage, and raw vulnerability, DiMaso is the catalyzing force that ropes Irving and Sydney into the sting operation that ultimately busts Jeremy Renner’s impeccably-coiffed Mayor Polito– a family-centric “man of the people” whose inherent naïveté gets him unwittingly embroiled in corruption charges that rock his beloved community of Camden, New Jersey.
The strength of Russell’s core cast is matched by the eclecticism of his supporting ensemble, which boasts the likes of legendary silver screen performers and popular character actors alike. Known primarily for his standup comedy and his eponymous television show on FX, Louis CK doesn’t stray terribly far from his idiosyncratic shtick as Stoddard Thorsen, a disgruntled FBI desk jockey and a bureaucratic foil to DiMaso’s struggle to assert control of his operation.
The ever-reliable Shea Whigham plays Carl Elway, the sleazy aide to Mayor Polito and a key enabler of his unwitting spiral into corruption. BOARDWALK EMPIRE star Jack Huston ably inhabits a character who, through his burgeoning affair with Mrs. Rosenfeld, not only becomes an agent of Irving’s downfall but a catalyst for Rosalyn’s own self-realization and empowerment.
In one of AMERICAN HUSTLE’s more comical twists, Michael Pena plays an undercover agent of Mexican descent who, thanks to the racial ignorance of his white superiors, is forced to pass as a member of Saudi royalty. Finally, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK’s Robert DeNiro surprises the audience with an uncredited, near-unrecognizable cameo as a Floridian mob enforcer.
AMERICAN HUSTLE continues the grounded, visceral aesthetic that marked both THE FIGHTER and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, employing a dynamic steadicam-based approach to camerawork that makes for Russell’s most visually-ambitious film since THREE KINGS (1999).
Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren infuse the 2.35:1 35mm film image with a tempered color palette of golds, burgundies and royal blues that perfectly captures returning production designer Judy Becker’s indulgent and playfully-campy recreation of the 1970’s.
Indeed, Russell’s vision eschews the gritty, realistic approach that marked THE FIGHTER’s depiction of the early 1990’s in favor of something resembling a carnival of flamboyant costumes, as if the story was unfolding under a pair of invisible quotation marks; a degree of separation from the assumption of reality.
It’s clear that everyone is having the time of their lives making this film, with electric performances and restless camerawork working in harmony with a dynamite soundtrack of 70’s rock, big band, jazz, and disco cues to give the audience a Scorsese-style contact high.
Danny Elfman returns as AMERICAN HUSTLE’s credited composer, but his score is quickly and completely drowned out by overpowering needledrops from artists like Crosby Still Nash & Young, Duke Ellington, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Santana, and Paul McCartney.
AMERICAN HUSTLE marks the culmination of several key aspects of Russell’s filmography, like a distinctly East-Coast mentality and the exploration of combative family dynamics. The evolution of his visceral style reaches its zenith here, making for an exhilarating (if not exactly coherent) viewing experience that cements his bid as Scorsese’s heir apparent.
Never has Russell been more palpably confident in his abilities than AMERICAN HUSTLE, emboldened by the twin successes of THE FIGHTER and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK to push himself even further. It’s easily the most “alive” of his films, never losing sight of character even if his plot gets tangled in the weeds of his vibrant, sprawling scope.
That clarity of vision and full-throated embrace of narrative chaos enabled AMERICAN HUSTLE to push through its very legitimate criticisms to become a critical and box office success when it was released in 2013 at the height of awards season.
Its recognition at the Oscars reflected the impressively overwhelming nature of Russell’s vision, netting no less than 10 nods in major categories including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Russell’s own third consecutive nomination for Best Director.
However, its ultimate haul — zero — reflects the profound (and intentional) emptiness beneath AMERICAN HUSTLE’s glitzy veneer, giving it a distinction it shares with the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT (2010) and Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) of being the second-most nominated film without a single win.
For all intents and purposes, it seems Russell had applied the lessons learned throughout his rocky, erratic career to ascend to the top of his field, in the process becoming one of our most prominent contemporary directors. Indeed, AMERICAN HUSTLE finds Russell at the undisputable apex of his filmography so far, his well-documented tendency for self-destruction seemingly having gone into remission.
However, the key word in that sentence is “seemingly”– just as his consecutive successes since 2010 emboldened him as an artist towards ever-loftier heights, so too did it encourage a sense of complacency. The spectre of the tyrant director that nearly derailed THREE KINGS and I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) reportedly materialized once again on AMERICAN HUSTLE, if stories from the set describing Russell driving Adams to tears on a daily basis are to be believed.
Even if such stories are untrue, all signs point to the notion that Russell’s hot streak was over. The tangible flaws in Russell’s otherwise-brilliant direction of AMERICAN HUSTLE signaled the growing rot of complacency and false confidence deep within the machine– an acidic corrosion that, if left untreated, threatened to bring his reign to an abrupt end.
In 2015, director David O. Russell was 57 years old and in the prime of his career. He had made a succession of three increasingly well-received features, and there seemed to be no end in sight to his hot streak.
The process of making THE FIGHTER (2010), SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) enabled him to find and hone his artistic identity while working with a consistent set of collaborators who helped to unlock his full potential.
His collaborations with actress Jennifer Lawrence seemed particularly potent, with the Oscar-winner’s salty effervescence flourishing to new heights under his direction. Similarly, Russell’s creative energies were electrified by the discovery of his muse– but just as a muse can bring out the very best in a director, so too can he develop an overreliance that blinds him to the practical necessities of the project at hand.
This would seem to be the case with Russell’s fourth feature after his mid-career renaissance– 2015’s JOY, a project that saw his greatest assets become severe liabilities. All the ingredients of Russell’s creative alchemy– a talented roster of familiar performers, a working-class East Coast setting, his massive reworking of an existing script (in this case, a draft by Annie Mumulo) to better fit his tastes– were present for JOY, but for whatever infuriatingly unknown reason, his magic spell had been broken.
Despite its modest success at the box office, JOY came to be critically regarded as a bucket of ice thrown on Russell’s hot streak– a creative failure unable to live up to the expectations set by his previous three films.
The third of Russell’s films during this period to shoot in the greater Boston area without actually being set there, JOY exercises a staggering degree of creative license in its telling of the rags-to-riches story of inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano.
Indeed, he takes the basic framework of Joy’s narrative — from her invention of a redesigned mop in a sleepy Long Island town to her ultimate command of a global business empire — and reworks every element to create a 100% fictional tale that plays to his directorial strengths.
Jennifer Lawrence earned her third consecutive Oscar nomination under Russell’s direction and won the Golden Globe for her performance as the titular Joy, a determined and enterprising single mom who has grown frustrated and exhausted after a promising childhood of imagination and genius was derailed by a demanding and confining adulthood.
Her natural talents have turned against her, enabling the debilitating dependency of her immediate family– they drag her down when they should hold her up. She’s now in her mid-thirties, and labors all day as a booking clerk for a small airline only to come home to a frenzied home situation with her young daughter, her needy live-in parents and grandmother, and even her ex-husband, who has taken up residence in her basement following their divorce.
One night, a vision of her childhood self comes to her in a dream, confronting her about the imagination and wonder she’s since lost. Joy wakes up re-inspired, channeling her newfound energy into the invention of a radically redesigned mop that holds the potential to fundamentally transform her life for the better– but in order to set herself free, she will first have to put everything on the line.
Lawrence delivers a dependably brilliant performance, albeit one that’s hampered by a fatal flaw– she’s simply too young to portray a woman in her late 30’s and early 40’s with 100% believability. In what has to be an entertainment industry first, her youth actually works against her, preventing the audience from fully suspending their disbelief.
The fault lies not with Lawrence, but with Russell, who is so enamored with the talents and physicality of his muse that he’s willing to trade the practical necessities of his story for them. As a study of a woman’s development over several decades, there is an intangible component of Lawrence’s casting that works in an expressionistic sense, but most audiences will not see it that way– instead they will only see a casting choice that flagrantly trespasses the bounds of credulity.
Thankfully, Lawrence’s performance is given the weight it requires thanks to the unwavering commitment of her supporting cast. Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper both benefit from their familiarity with Russell in their third collaboration together.
DeNiro plays Joy’s father, Rudy: a crotchety auto body shop owner and a combative, self-centered dad whose emotional growth lies in his active support of Joy’s business endeavor. Cooper channels a quiet intensity as Neil Walker, the QVC executive who is instrumental in getting Joy’s mop into the hands of consumers.
He’s a kind and decent man, but he’s not with without a tempered swagger, envisioning himself as a new-wave studio mogul. Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, and Isabella Rossellini constitute the new recruits of Russell’s loyal repertory ensemble, each delivering a dynamic and memorable performance that effortlessly gels with Russell’s artistic character.
Ramirez portrays Joy’s ex-husband Tony, a nightclub singer whose specialty is salsa covers of pop songs. Initially presented as a rakish playboy, he proves himself a devoted father and loyal partner to Joy in business (if not matrimony).
Ladd plays Joy’s grandmother Mimi, a glamorous and ethereal lady who is a fundamental force in her granddaughter’s life, even though she’s been recently shunted to the periphery. There’s an air of magical realism to her character, evidenced most directly in the fact that her voiceover narration throughout the film is revealed to be coming from a different plane of existence beyond the grave.
The extremely underrated Madsen plays Joy’s mother, Terry: a soap opera fanatic suffering from a bout of depression that has left her voluntarily bedridden and dependent on her daughter in a way that reverses the mother-daughter dichotomy.
Rossellini’s eccentric physicality proves the perfect fit for the role of Trudy, a rich Italian widow and Rudy’s new girlfriend. She eventually funnels a large portion of her late husband’s fortune into Joy’s endeavor, entangling her in such a manner that she becomes a unique and inspired foil to Joy’s ambitions when things go south.
Russell and his AMERICAN HUSTLE cinematographer Linus Sandgren reimplement the particular visual style that has marked his work as of late, albeit with a few changes. Shooting on super 35mm film, Russell and Sandgren deviate from Scope to embrace the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which proves appropriate for a tighter compositional approach comprised mostly of closeups.
One might think that a story about the reinvention of a mop doesn’t necessarily lend itself to dynamic cinematography, but Russell and company do exactly that, employing a restless camera that constantly roves around his scenes in search of fluid compositions.
It takes no less than four editors — Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, and Christopher Tellefson — to blend Russell’s dizzying mix of cranes, dolly moves and steadicam shots into a kinetic, just-barely-contained brew.
Russell augments this approach with cascading waves of overlapping dialogue and music, scattering our bearings just as we’ve got them in a bid to reflect the chaos of Joy’s inner life as the sole provider of a family who threatens to drown her with their neediness.
A wintry palette of cold hues further echoes Joy’s quiet despair, which Russell counters with the whimsical warmth of Christmas trimmings and a series of fantasy sequences that resemble old-fashioned Hollywood musicals in their theatricality.
He also uses the visual language of cheesy, overlit soap operas in recurring interludes that allow Joy to directly confront and challenge the social expectations of “the wife & mother”, albeit in the fantastical realm of an unconscious dreamscape, further distinguishing herself apart from it via her ambitions and worldview.
Just as he did with AMERICAN HUSTLE, Russell implements a sprawling, Scorsese-style approach to music– JOY’s selection of needledrops span a wide range of genres, from the iconic rock of Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones to the colorful flavor of salsa and the vibrant, brassy energy of big band swing.
The original score — composed by David Campbell and West Dylan Thordsen — takes a back seat to JOY’s pre-existing music bed, supplying a very slight layer of ethereal piano and strings to support its title character’s emotional journey like a fragile spiderweb.
As the fourth film in Russell’s self-described series about “ordinary people living passionately”, JOY is part and parcel with the major themes that preoccupy him at this stage of his career. The east coast working class setting allows Russell to better penetrate the psyches of his characters via a backdrop that he’s quite familiar with.
The rambling spirit that marked AMERICAN HUSTLE’s prioritization of character over story bleeds over into JOY, leaving Russell’s storytelling feeling frequently unfocused or distracted– but at least the characters themselves are compelling and eminently watchable.
Normally, this would be the part where I argue a well-balanced and focused story is integral to the emotional effectiveness of a film, but when faced with a story that, on its face, is about the reinvention of household cleaning supplies, Russell’s heavy skewing towards character is understandable.
Russell’s films also often feature the protagonist working to discover or assert his or her identity, a quest that prompts friction or outright hostility from immediate family members with opposing values. Familial conflict is the major hinge on which the stakes of his stories pivot, eschewing flashier cinematic stakes like “life or death” or “the end of the world”.
JOY further carves out Russell’s space in this niche to find that awkward dramatic place between support and hostility, pitting Joy against her own parents as she attempts to mount and subsequently salvage her risky business endeavor.
Finally, one of Russell’s more unsavory artistic traits — a verbally abusive streak and a hair-trigger temper — threatens to flare back up after he had seemingly beaten it back during his artistic reformation. Whispers of Russell’s clashes with Amy Adams on the set of AMERICAN HUSTLE bubbled up along the fringes of that film’s release chatter, and JOY would find him once again dogged by rumors about his conduct, this time towards Lawrence– to the extent that Lawrence took it upon herself to release a public statement denying the rumors.
One might think it unthinkable that Russell’s temper and ego would get the better of him when his prior collaborations with Lawrence had been so fruitful and full of mutual admiration, but it also goes to show that creativity has a dark side that can be equally as passionate.
In any case, any ruffled feathers seem to have since been smoothed over, judging by Lawrence’s Golden Globes acceptance speech wherein she proclaimed that she’d “like to be buried alongside” Russell.
Twentieth Century Fox released JOY on Christmas Day 2015 to modest box office receipts and mixed reviews, with Lawrence’s performance receiving the bulk of critics’ praise. The perennial awards favorite would have to settle this time for only a single Academy Award nomination for Lawrence, but it nonetheless reinforced his reputation as a dependable deliveryman of accolades for his cast.
Her nomination was not without objection, however– many saw her casting as emblematic of a larger ineffectual indulgence on Russell’s part, having become so reliant on his muse and stylistic quirks that he failed to heed what the project truly demanded of him.
Indeed, a feeling that Russell had overreached, or had bought into his own hype to his detriment, pervaded JOY’s reception. An argument could be made that he had reworked Annie Mumolo’s original script so thoroughly to best fit his strengths, that he simply failed to challenge himself.
Thus, it might not be particular details like Lawrence’s casting or an unfocused narrative, but a general blanket of complacency that ultimately resulted in JOY’s underwhelming effect. It remains to be seen if JOY is indeed the end of Russell’s recent hot streak, or merely a momentary aberration.
Perhaps it was only a natural part of the artistic cycle; after all, not even the best of directors– including Russell’s stylistic forebear, Scorsese — can sustain a prolonged run of excellence. The overwhelming praise lavished upon his previous three films condemns JOY to dwell by association in their shadow, making it difficult to judge the film on its own merits.
Remove the golden veneer of what came before, however, and one might uncover a passionately-crafted character piece that is far more exciting and compelling than a story about the reinvention of the mop has any right to be.
Its watchability is a major testament to the performances and Russell’s brilliance as a director, who despite his flagging critical returns is still operating on a level of originality and energy that’s simply unmatched by most directors of his generation.
If JOY’s press materials reveal anything about him, it’s that he knows exactly who he is as an artist– he’s extremely cognizant about the themes and ideas that interest him and that fuel his creativity. In a profession where most of its practitioners tend to “feel it out” and go with gut instincts, it can’t be overstated how useful a fully-realized knowledge of self can be to an artist.
Many filmmakers never reach that level of total self-awareness, but those who do empower themselves to command their craft with the utmost precision. It’s clear in hindsight that Russell reached this rarefied artistic plane sometime around THE FIGHTER, and it’s only a matter of time until he leverages his abilities and reinstalls himself within the awards circuit shortlists.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———