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.