With all the great directors out there to choose from—Tarantino, Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson—it's hard to think of many aspiring filmmakers who would look at David O. Russell's career and say, "That's who I want to be." There are auteurs who follow the beat of their own drum, and then there's Russell, who just about never does anything the easy way. That makes him incredibly inspiring. But, dear God, you wouldn't recommend trying to follow his path. It's just too fraught with peril.
His latest film, Silver Linings Playbook, opens next week, and in Russell fashion it's pretty darn great but it stubbornly refuses to be just one thing. It's a feel-good comedy in which man (Bradley Cooper) with severe emotional problems develops a friendship with a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who has issues of her own. Sometimes the film is a love story, sometimes it's a family melodrama, sometimes it's about sports fandom, and somehow it also fits in a dance competition. (Oh, and Chris Tucker is in it for a little bit, too.) If Silver Linings Playbook is an Oscar contender, as some people have speculated, then it's one of the oddest in a while—its unpredictable rhythms run counter to the sort of safe, staid, "serious" narratives we're used to during Academy Award season.
At this stage of Russell's career, I shouldn't be surprised anymore by the cockeyed approach. Russell made his feature debut with Spanking the Monkey, which premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. In its broad strokes—forgive the pun—Spanking the Monkey seemed like a typical Sundance entry: a sensitive coming-of-age story about an introverted young man (Jeremy Davies) who must take care of his bedridden mother (Alberta Watson), learning valuable life lessons in the process. But in its execution, it was a far smarter, tougher, funnier film than that, showing how this nice-guy loser starts to form an unhealthy Oedipal bond with his mom.
The movie was a hit at Sundance, and it established the main thematic engine of most of his films: lost young men who have to figure out how to pull their lives together. In his next film, Flirting With Disaster, the theme might have been hard to notice at first, underneath the screwball comedy and "Mary Tyler Moore in a bra" jokes. Russell's script twisted the road movie into something far more antic and kinky. Ben Stiller played Mel, a neurotic new father who decides to go on the road with his wife (Patricia Arquette) and an adoption agent (Téa Leoni) to find the birth parents he's never met. Filmed with handheld cameras and aggressively madcap, Flirting looked like your average "zany" Miramax comedy of the '90s, only it was genuinely funny and actually had something to say about people's basic need to understand who they are. Plus, it was incredibly sexy.
Next came Three Kings, the sort of studio movie that studios never make because it's not the 1970s anymore. Here was a "war movie" that was really a film-length condemnation of American intervention in the Middle East, with George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze hunting for a cache of gold in the chaos around the first Gulf War. In the 13 years since Three Kings came out, more and more hot indie directors have graduated to studio moviemaking with superhero flicks or other genre work, making Russell's movie even more remarkable in retrospect. Three Kings was rambunctiously stylish, propulsive, bitingly sarcastic, and weirdly moving. It felt as if Russell had fooled Warner Bros. into thinking he was making an action-thriller and then had gone ahead and made the movie he wanted to do right under his bosses' noses.
Three films in five years, each one riskier than the last: Russell was definitely looking like a serious up-and-comer. When Esquire asked different writers in 2000 to pick "the next Martin Scorsese," Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan went with Russell, and with good reason. It seemed like the sky was the limit for his ambitions and talents.
Then, something happened. Maybe it was the discovery that Clooney and Russell had feuded during the making of Three Kings, leading to an ugly confrontation on set between them. Or perhaps it was Russell's next film, I ♥ Huckabees, which was even more daring than Three Kings. The off-kilter comedy was about a depressed environmentalist (Jason Schwartzman), a married pair of existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), and a smattering of other quirky individuals all trying to get a grasp on some form of happiness. It came out five years after Three Kings—a long time for a guy who'd been on a hot streak—and was a commercial bomb.
For critics, it inspired a lot of impassioned raves and a lot of impassioned pans. Huckabees was a film with a screw loose, so assuredly the thing it was trying to be that you wondered if it was your problem that you didn't like it more. After Three Kings, Russell could have possibly tried going in a more commercial direction—instead, he kept following his muse down whatever strange path attracted its fancy.
But while there was much debate over the movie at the time—and much praise for Wahlberg's terrific performance as an activist fireman—popular culture soon forgot all about Huckabees. Instead, everyone seemed to focus on "The Feud," the infamous Huckabees on-set dust-up between Tomlin and Russell. At least with Clooney on Three Kings, we never saw what happened. This time, it was captured for everyone to see.
The infamous screaming match—which has probably been seen by more people than actually saw Huckabees—didn't just capture Russell at his worst. It made him look like an out-of-control lunatic, badmouthing Tomlin with the type of language, especially the C-word, that will make large swaths of the planet instantly dislike you. If Huckabees had been better received, then perhaps audiences might have been slightly more sympathetic to Russell's outburst. (Hey, he's making art, you know?) But Russell just came off as a petulant jerk, a formerly promising filmmaker now saddled with a massive ego.
Things didn't get any easier from there. He tried making another film, Nailed, a satire about health care that starred Jessica Biel as a waitress who has a nail in her head. He had to leave the film during production due to financial disagreements, although that didn't stop the producers from test-screening the movie without telling him or the cast about it. Suddenly, the '90s whiz kid looked like a hard-luck case, a cautionary tale about unfulfilled potential.
Then in 2010, he finally returned with The Fighter, a most un-Russell-like project. A biopic about boxer Micky Ward (Wahlberg), it was an inspirational sports movie, a director-for-hire gig. Russell brought his usual left-of-center approach to conventional material—it's essentially a 21st-century Rocky with a tough performance from Christian Bale as Ward's drug-addicted half-brother Dicky—but his emphasis on Ward's family and the story's Boston-area setting couldn't fully sweep away the feeling that this was the kind of movie you make when you want to stay relevant in Hollywood. A decade earlier, Russell had gone to Hollywood and delivered a subversive war film. Now, he was playing the game straight. And it paid off: The Fighter was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it won Oscars for Bale and Melissa Leo.
But while The Fighter may be his least ambitious film, his commitment to a raw, realistic look at Ward's working-class roots gave the drama an integrity that transcended sports-movie formula. And, thankfully, conventionality was just a temporary condition: Silver Linings Playbook returns him to genre-hopping. It may not reach the heights of his '90s gems—it doesn't quite have the "look what I'm getting away with!" anarchic spirit of his earlier films—but it shows a guy still willing to bend narrative styles to their breaking point. He's a study for budding filmmakers about the importance of staying true to one's own instincts. Just be careful about trying to emulate him.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.