Tuesday, November 20, 2012

the Directors: David O. Russell

I go back and forth with David O. Russell. With the exception of one of his films (well, now, two), his movies frequently verge on the edge of brilliance, but something manages to deter it away from whatever lame idea of greatness I have perceived of it.

So, to be clear, I enjoy every single one of Russell’s films, but I love few of them. Either way, his ability to impeccably shift tone, style, and genre from film to film (and often, within each film itself) definitely deserves to be applauded. For better or worse, he is one hell of a unique cinematic voice.

Spanking the Monkey (1994)
A college kid home for the summer, who is unable to successful jerk off due to situational comedy, soon develops a crush for his bedridden biological mother.

So that’s Spanking the Monkey.

Believe me, this sounds about as absurd as it really is, but what stops it from being repulsive is the dedication of the actors to the material. Alberta Watson (as the momma with a broken leg) and Jeremy Davies (as the son who can’t get off) completely buy into what Russell is selling, resulting in a ballsy slice of American independent cinema.

I’m not trying to make this movie sound better than it is (because really, it isn’t that good), but I do respect it for its content and the way in which it was discovered. Russell got some money together, shot it, then shopped it. He won Sundance and made a career for himself. Whatever works. C+

Flirting with Disaster (1996)
Sticking with the absurdist shtick, Russell was able to propel the heat from Spanking the Monkey to fund this plot-heavy comedy.  I’ll try to be concise, but: Mel (Ben Stiller) and his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) have just had their first child, which Mel refuses to name until he can meet his biological parents. After a disastrous trip across much of the United States, the couple, accompanied by a flirty, out-of-her-element adoption agency worker (Téa Leoni), and a pair of gay ATF agents (Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins), finally end up on the front porch of Mel’s real parents (Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin).

Now, similarly to Spanking, Flirting with Disaster works solely because David O. Russell knows how to perfectly cast a picture. All of the actors involved nail their respective roles, dishing out the appropriate amount of irrationality, while knowing precisely when to hold back. Were it not for them (namely Leoni, who steals the show) the movie would be a big fat fail. B

Three Kings (1999)
I don’t know what the hell inspired Russell to make a heavy war drama following two comedies, but thank God he did, as his Three Kings is a blessing to the cinematic medium.

The war is over and four Army men cook up a too-good-to-be-true plan of stealing millions of gold from Saddam Hussein under the guise of a cease-fire issued by President Bush. And once they realize that stealing gold isn’t nearly as important as saving helpless human beings, Three Kings turns into one of the finest films of the ‘90s.

Everything about this movie is a risk. Its stylized look (the DVD has a very unintentionally humorous disclaimer that the look of the film is indeed purposeful), its impeccable tonal shifts (like playing Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” over the soundtrack before and during moments of certain doom), the acting (from Clooney to Wahlberg to Cube to everyone) – everything at first glance simply should not have worked. But it did. And it does.

I never grow tired of this picture. It’s as fresh and vivid as the first time I saw it. A remarkable achievement. A+

I ♥ Huckabees (2004)
Oh Christ, how the hell does one even begin to explain this film? If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand my conundrum. If you haven’t seen it, then you’ve likely heard about its puzzlement. At a feeble attempt to rationalize: Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are existential detectives (…I don’t know either) helping Jason Schwartzman find himself (…or something). Mark Wahlberg, Jude Law and Naomi Watts (who are all splendid and hilarious) enter the mix, as Isabelle Huppert (in a rare role of fun) tries to upset Hoffman and Tomlin’s business.

Or, as I said, something like that.

I ♥ Huckabees is a film best not clarified, but rather, experienced. And, if I’m being honest, the first (and still only) time I experienced this movie, I was left in no way wanting more. I got what Russell was going for, but I didn’t care to dive in. Granted, that was several years ago, but as it sits with me now, I cannot recommend I ♥ Huckabees beyond a handful of excellent performances and its audacity of trying something utterly new. B-

(Note: I’ve since rewatched the film after writing my brief breakdown. My grade stands.)

The Fighter (2010)
I’m an insatiable boxing fan, and Irish Micky Ward is one of my all-time favorite prizefighters. His three bouts with Arturo Gatti in the early ‘00s (which are not depicted in this film) are three of the best boxing matches I have ever witnessed. Round 9 of their first fight is one of the main reasons I am so fascinated with the sport.

Okay, sorry, back to the film.

So, obviously I’m a fan, and I was pumped when it was announced Mark Wahlberg would play the lead alongside Brad Pitt as Ward’s drug-addicted brother, with Darren Aronofsky running the show. When that fell through and we got Christian Bale for Brad Pitt and Russell for Aronofsky, I was curiously interested. The final result is a film of ferocious intensity. Punches are thrown, screams are heard, drama is enlightened – all to cinematic glory. Problem is, while all of that remains true, virtually none of that praise accurately describes the film’s fight scenes.

Point in fact, The Fighter contains some of the worst, most uninspired boxing sequences I have ever seen, and I’ve seen many. I was shocked, quite frankly, at how faulted the film was in the ring. But outside, it gets damn near everything right. A solid film more than worthy of its praise, that could’ve been much more. B+

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
There’s a theme that’s run throughout this post, and that is the notion of changing tones. If Russell is one thing, he is a director equipped with an immaculate skill of shifting the mood of a film, from scene to scene, within the scene – anything to create that swing. All of his films contain swift changes in tone and the best ones, like Three Kings and Silver Linings Playbook, use that skill to better themselves.

Silver Linings Playbook tells the whimsical, absurd, heartfelt story of Pat Solitano and his merry band of misfit friends. There’s the kooky mom, the compulsive dad, the insecure best friend, the arrogant brother, the whacky love interest – this film has it all, and, again, like Three Kings, never really feels like it should work. You can read my full review of this wonderful movie here, but in short, expect to hear a lot more about it once Oscar season rolls around. A

In Summation
Three Kings

The Fighter
Silver Linings Playbook

Flirting with Disaster

Spanking the Monkey
I ♥ Huckabees

Just Plain Bad

Previous Director Profiles include:


  1. With the exception of Three Kings which I hope to see next year and The Silver Lining Playbook which I will be able to see with Life of Pi on Thanksgiving since it is going to be playing nearby. Here's my ranking of Russell's films so far:

    1. I Heart Huckabee's
    2. Flirting with Disaster
    3. Spanking the Monkey
    4. Soldiers Pay
    5. The Fighter

    I'm sure not many people has heard or seen Soldiers Pay. I have a review of that doc short he did in 2004 at Epinions.com. I'll post it next year in a more polished version. It's one of the more obscure reviews that I wrote.

    1. Huckabee's fan, huh? I know a lot of people who swear by that film, but it just doesn't fully work for me. Oh well.

      I've seen Soldiers Pay, but didn't include it hear because it's a short and I haven't seen it in a long while. I do remember liking it though. Be interested in your review.

  2. The best thing David O Russell's ever been involved with is that video of him going insane at Lily Tomlin (which if you haven't seen, you need to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4Qls1rAfYs). I am not a huge fan of his work at all. Three Kings was good, I fucking hated The Fighter.

    1. If I'm ever down or in need of a laugh, I watch that flip out. That shit is so fucking epic, I just love it. And little old Lily dishing it right back... priceless.

      I'm not the biggest fan of his work, but I do love the shit out of Three Kings. The Fighter could've been such a better film. Too bad.

  3. I've only seen Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and The Fighter, but I like all three of them. Yeah, that A+ means I'm definitely rewatching Three Kings.

    1. Nice! Three Kings is one of my favorites ever. Huckabees never fully hits for me and The Fighter... (sigh), I just wanted MORE. Either way, thanks for reading man!

  4. I remember the UK TV premiere of Spanking The Monkey, I must have been about 13, they made a huge deal out of it with a documentary preceding it and made it part of a weekend of programming. The one thing I always remember is Russell saying that Faye Dunaway agreed to play the mother but then backed out just prior to production. It has a soft spot in my heart.

    1. Cool story. It's a well intentioned film, with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get it made, but it is just so goddamn odd, you know? I don't love it or hate it, I just like it enough.

  5. The dinner scene in I <3 Huckabees is brilliant, and I think the movie has a whole is one of the most quote-able.

    Have you ever transcended time and space?
    Time, not space....no...I have no idea what you're talking about.

    1. That was a pretty groovy scene, but I have trouble enjoying myself throughout the whole film. Wahlberg nails it though.

  6. Hmmm ... I have a dim memory of having seen Flirting With Disaster and being underwhelmed. You'd think a movie with Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as openly gay ATF agents couldn't miss with me (I mean how awesome is that?) But I definitely didn't like it.

    Spanking the Monkey sounds way too Oedipal and icky for my tastes. Granted, just about any material can work, depending on how it's handled but ... um ... no thanks.

    The others sound great (several are already on my list), except maybe I <3 Huckabees. I've been on the fence about that one for a long time.

    1. Yeah, Spanking the Monkey might be (kinda) enjoyable while you're watching it, but there's really nothing to make it stick long haul.

      Cannot recommend Three Kings highly enough. You're on your own for Huckabees... that one is batshit nuts haha.