David O. Russell: A Director’s Career
Hollywood can be an unforgiving industry sometimes. After the unsuccessful performance of I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell didn’t make a film for 6 years, depriving the audience of his particular vision and cinematic delivery. Russell is one of few directors with a vast range in terms of genre and style. He has been successful in creating dark indie comedies, a big budget, explosion-filled war film; an Oscar nominated biographical drama, and heartfelt romantic comedies. The variety of subject matter and tones he manages is more than impressive, making him an acclaimed Hollywood director who is able to bring an auteur’s style to every project. He has worked with, and arguably launched the careers of, some of the most iconic actors of the 90’s and early 2000’s, from George Clooney, to Ben Stiller, Christian Bale, and now Jennifer Lawrence. For all his risk-taking projects, engaging stories, and his ability to bring out the best out of his cast, David O. Russell is an Academy Award nominated director who is still at the top of his craft. Let’s take a look at some of the most important pieces in his career so far.
Spanking The Monkey (1994)
The debut feature from David O. Russell is a coming of age drama starring Jeremy Davies as Raymond, an intelligent young man who comes home from school to reluctantly take care of his mother. Employing a very well developed script with darkly comedic undertones, Russell competently delivers a character study of this troubled teenager who feels trapped and asphyxiated by his parents’ deficiencies and his need to find his own path. The cast includes Alberta Watson as the incestuous mother, and Benjamin Hendrickson as Ray’s absent but exigent dad. From this early in his career Russell stands out as an actor’s director: one that can really get under the skin of the characters to bring something vivid and real from his talent. It was indeed a very daring script for a first feature, involving underage sex, suicidal tendencies, and incest. Yet, the plot feels truthful and really connected with audiences; so much so, that it won Russell the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. David O. Russell seemed to be on his way to becoming an A-list film director.
Flirting With Disaster (1996)
One of David O. Russell’s trademarks is his ability to create chaotic scenes full of firing dialogue from multiple characters in a masterful manner, making memorable moments out this seemingly improvised, but artfully scripted sequences. In his sophomore feature, Flirting With Disaster, he shows this skill with inventive comedy and hilarious, witty lines. Starring Ben Stiller as Mel, the film is about a man who is trying to find his biological parents by sailing out on a cross country trip along with his wife, and a young employee of the adoption agency that he was part of. Another audacious move from Russell, touching on controversial topics like homosexual couples adopting children and drug use; however, such themes are weaved into the story in such a manner that they organically blend within the characters’ world. Full of very creative situations, this comedy of errors helped launched Russell’s career into mainstream Hollywood, while also grounding him as a skilled writer/director. Although different in tone from his previous film, the importance of searching for belonging and parental acceptance is still present. Russell proved he could successfully dive into different genres and still leave his imprint, style and vision on the final product. The film was also another critical triumph for the director and a mild economic success.
Three Kings (1999)
With this darkly comedic war film Warner Bros. took a big risk, and a leap of faith on Russell. Less than a decade after the end of the Gulf War, the director wrote and directed this very entertaining film about a group of soldiers who take on the mission to recover Kuwaiti gold from the Iraqis for their own benefit. Staring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, the film was critically acclaimed for its style and undertone of satirical social commentary. As a director, Russell proved he could create visually stylized action sequences, while still making a thoughtful film criticizing the agenda of the American government and the media’s influence on a society’s perception of events. The dialogue and comedic elements are on point; they feel witty and edgy but never over the top. This film also gave hints of the director’s interest in human connections and the ripple effects of one’s actions, which he would explore more abstractly in his following projects. Three Kings solidified David O. Russell’s career in Hollywood because of its relevant subject matter, which still feels relevant today, as well as the great performances he shaped out his all-star cast.
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Five years after the success of his previous film David O. Russell returned with an even riskier project, an “existential comedy” as he described it. I Heart Huckabees tells the story of Albert (Jason Schwartzman) an open spaces activist who can’t find the answer for his personality issues and how they relate to his environment. To solve these issues he hires “existential detectives” Vivian (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) who must figure out what the root of his issues is. Written and directed by Russell the film explores humanity’s place within the universe and reality, the nature of relationships, and the meaning of life itself. It was received with mixed reviews due to its strange premise and style. Visually it continues with the director’s quirky, almost fantastic, vision, but it failed to become a hit both commercially and critically. Despite its lack of cohesiveness the film is proof of the director’s skills with some great performances from Mark Wahlberg as a manic/depressive firefighter and an equally disturbed, charming Jude Law. Production for the film was also rocky, as the media found out through a video of David O. Russell storming off set after an argument with Lily Tomlin. The project sent the director into a long hiatus, from which, fortunately, he returned stronger than ever.
The Fighter (2010)
For his return to the directorial arena David O. Russell chose The Fighter, a biopic based on the life of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). More than a sports film, the story is a family drama that served as great material for a magnificent ensemble cast. Wahlberg returns to one of Russell’s films for the third time, making him Russell’s most recurrent talent, to deliver a complex character torn between his family, his career choices, and his love interest. Nevertheless, the supporting cast achieved greater success. Christian Bale delivered a knockout performance as the drug-addict- fallen-star brother to Wahlberg’s character, which earned him a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The female cast was equally acclaimed landing Best Supporting Actress nominations for both Melisa Leo as the boxer’s antagonistic mother, and Amy Adams as the feisty girlfriend. The former would go on to win the award, making it a dual win in the supporting acting categories. Obviously such great acting results come from the experienced direction of David O. Russell, who received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director and noms for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, and Editing. The Fighter would become the director’s most successful film to date, both critically and at the box office.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
This year Russell’s follow up to The Fighter is the romantic-mental-illness-comedy Silver Linings Playbook. Based on the novel of the same name, the script was adapted by Russell himself for the big screen. Starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the two leads, the film is expected to be one of the major contenders in the upcoming Award season. Pat (Cooper) has just been released form a mental institution after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Once back at home he aims to get his life together by gaining back his wife’s love, which is the reason for his breakdown. He meets Tiffany (Lawrence) a young widow trying to get control of her life back. The afflicted duo start a relationship based on the promise of helping each other achieve their goals, but fall in love in the meantime. So far Silver Linings has placed Lawrence and Cooper in privileged positions for Academy Award nominations and not unlikely is the possibility of the film getting recognition in the Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and of course Best Director categories. The film is graciously written, with endless back-and-forth dialogue sequences that among other things, bring out Robert De Niro’s most memorable performance in a long time as Pat’s OCD-suffering father. Silver Linings Playbook is a joyous love story that becomes more than just that, thanks to Russell’s ability to deliver comedy, drama, and pure emotion from page to screen.
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