In Praise of David O. Russell
A Dissection of a Modern Master

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David O. Russell is one of the best directors working in Hollywood today, and the most readily misunderstood — one that, for some reason, rustles jimmies like no other.

Though his recent masterpiece-littered output includes Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy, Russell’s often accused of making simplistic, empty exercises in style that are “obvious Oscar bait.” Indeed, his last four pictures—the aforementioned three and The Fighter—have garnered a total of 26 Oscar nominations. But reducing his most recent trilogy—let’s collectively call them the “J-Law Trilogy,” since each prominently uses the intelligent young actor Jennifer Lawrence—to an insignificant rom-com, a Scorsese ripoff, and a messy movie about the Miracle Mop maker, misses the point. Marching to the rhythm of Russell’s palpitating heart makes it easier to spot the pond of gold shimmering underneath his films’ seemingly shallow surfaces. You spot a soul, you see a plucky optimist, you understand his belief in humanity’s noble foibles.

In order to begin appreciating the depth of Russell’s material, we must start considering his films not as piecemeal and disposable patchworks (as they are often viewed), but as individual parts of a larger, personal whole. He’s a true-blue auteur—an artist able to express a singular, unique, idiosyncratic voice in whatever work he write-directs. In the J-Law trilogy, the act of artistic creation is seen by O. Russell for the stunning, beautiful act it is. His films are free-form, Cassavetes-lite explorations into human emotion—soupy, oft-maddening, never concise, but always worth the payoff.

In general, Russell works in allegorical, highly expressionist terms. Not interested in depicting the typical surface accuracy of any particular subject, he instead strives to accurately reflect the spirit of it. In Silver Linings Playbook, bipolar Pat and depressed Tiffany are stand-ins for larger societal malaise; garish-gaudy criminals in American Hustle are stand-ins for our own guarded selves; and the titular Joy is a bizarre biopic character standing in for women, the ignored geniuses, the dreamers.

In the case of Silver Linings Playbook, we have a movie that doesn’t purport to address the problems of a specific type of mentally-ill person. Instead, Russell prognoses maladies of a much more universal source — Pat’s inability to let his Nikki-filled past go, his bipolar swings brought upon by the stresses of modern life, the family’s post-Recession struggles with money — to a much broader range of people. Like most folks criss-crossing across freeways and dealing with impatient clients over the phone—the ingredients of modern ennui—Pat and Tiffany in Silver Linings always teeter over the dangerous precipice to rage and fury. Their days, which start in mild irritation, fester into ever-more-hysterical states of mental disrepair. Driven up the wall to shrieking points (Pat wakes his mother and father up with his hysterical screaming and episodes of Nikki withdrawal), any minor, peripheral annoyance snowballs and snowballs to monstrous proportions. Unable to get a grip on their personal issues, they become the walking caricatures they didn’t want to be in the first place.

The cycle continues indefinitely, until they find a special someone to complete them. In the J-Law trilogy, protagonists face tremendous imbalance in their lives that only love can conquer, whether in the form of friend (the Metallica-obsessed Ronnie in Silver Linings Playbook), family (Robert De Niro’s various father figures), or lover (Amy Adams in American Hustle). It’s become fashionable to consider this idea hoary, but O. Russell makes us believe in it again through his undying conviction, expressed through his slam-bang kinetic style, and his generous appraisal of characters, no matter how cartoonish (combover, out-of-shape Bale in Hustle) or misguided (Joy’s father, a well-meaning parent who still can’t see the potential in his daughter). Russell can never bear to judge folks, embodying the sad and solemn humanism so passionately articulated in Jean Renoir’s 1939 The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”

Silver Linings Playbook is interested in the process of maturation and redemption. People change imperceptibly over time, maturing more, reflecting more, feeling less embarrassed about the fuckups of their past. Russell takes this process and cinematizes it. His product, in the end, argues we need another kooky half, whoever it may be, to continue growing, to be as wise as we possibly can. Pat and Tiffany stumble, fumble, throw hissy fits, fight, falter, rage, and cuss as they practice for a big dance competition they have no hope in hell of winning. But Silver Linings Playbook isn’t about whether Pat and Tiffany can dance or not. It doesn’t even matter if they win or lose. That’s beside the point. Russell’s goal is to show two dedicated humans attempt the impossible, and looking both their messiest and their finest. Pat and Tiffany aren’t losers simply because they can’t dance. They’re infinitely more interesting than your typical Hollywood winner or loser because they maintain their dignity and magnetic human warmth in the face of certain defeat.

Describing the curious emotional effect of the J-Law Trilogy is tricky. Nothing immediately jumps out that signifies a master filmmaker at work. Russell is slippery that way because he works on the intuitive level. Like Leo McCarey (Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth) and John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night), he has a love of ostensible improvisation so thick into itself that everything exciting happens submerged under a mundane, seemingly normal surface. But beneath, there’s an oily pocket of emotion waiting to be tapped by those willing to look beyond McCarey’s piousness, Cassavetes’s machismo, and Russell’s ersatz energy. As these artists chug along, they, like adroit, soft-shoe ballerinas, make art out of the motion of the camera, making up scenes as they go along, not knowing what they’ll discover from their actors, hammering the syncopated beats out as the seconds tick on.

Russell is especially weird for his mixings. He loves taking two opposites, bunching two and two together to create a surprising five. High-art profundity (the philosophical cross-references in I Heart Huckabees) rubs against low-brow absurdity (the mud-sex scene in the same movie). First-rate contamination takes place, where cartoonish exaggerations hide rich subtleties (see: all of the people in American Hustle, stereotyped 70s wackos who are much more nuanced than what first greets the eye) and where honesty mingles with artifice.

I think specifically of the moment in Joy when Joy, reminiscing about her failed marriage to Latin wannabe-pop-star Tony (Edgar Ramirez), remembers the time he helped her overcome her stage-fright. In a brief but brutally memorable aside, they perform a rousing, hoary, soaring, string-drenched rendition of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid”. It’s an emotionally overwrought moment, something so contrived that your little intellectual bell dings madly in your brain, informing you this a fake moment to consciously reject. And yet, the brain is bested by the nervous-wreck of the heart, who reminisces on similar failed loves, on potential chances with another person, on a spirituality that must be faked in order for it to become real. The first time I watched that scene, I laughed heartily at O. Russell’s audacity to be so sentimental. The second time I watched that scene, O. Russell had reduced me to the point of tears. Whence this contradictory reaction? I can justify it philosophically, cinematically, artistically. But at the end of the day, I can’t give a definitive answer because the connection is so brutally personal. His works are consciously worked out to inspire unconscious attachments to their ordinary scenarios. Such are the mysterious joys of the Russellverse.

Russell’s stories get their weight from the fascinating characters that populate them. Be they politician or petty con-artist, blonde ex-wife or Latin ex-husband, father or daughter, they all have one thing in common: They’re always in perpetual identity-crisis mode. Russell is interested in the natural human tendency to conceal the true self by way of an invented, outrageous persona. Silver Lining Playbook’s Tiffany avoids people by building an ice-cold fortress of snark around herself. After a depressive bout following her husband’s untimely death, she refuses people’s genuine attempts to connect to her. But this acidic neo-Goth is not the real Tiffany; underneath, she’s actually effervescent, shining, a wonderful collaborator. She’s only able to come out of her shell when she meets an equally broken soul, Cooper’s Pat.

Later, with Christian Bale’s astounding performance as Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle, Russell takes the conceit of pretending to be someone you’re not to the next level. A hoarse and overweight De Niro who pretends to talk with a Clark Gable-ish grace, Bale’s Irving retreats from the harsh realities of the world in an outlandish flurry of Ray-Bans and taupe, tight suits. He’s a man for whom looks mean everything. But his over-the-top concerns for “the best look”—especially a look that will conceal his unappealing gut—make us wonder just how comfortable he is with himself.

His wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), by contrast, has almost nothing to hide; because Irving consistently ignores her, she, funnily enough, has been able to gain more power in her domain (the household) than Irving does in his domain (the criminal sphere). She’s most comfortable with who she is, and she embraces her weirdness, as evidenced by one of the film’s most deliriously delightful moments: when she’s just ratted out Irving to her mob boyfriend, parading around the house lip-syncing Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” as she furiously cleans the house. In this one moment, she seems crazy, but she has shown her strength and flexes her muscles in a scene both hare-brained in its construction and frightening in its cutting bravado.

Films about identity can’t work without an engaging, lively cast to take on these identities. In this, Russell is especially gifted in casting just the right types to inhabit his worlds. For one, his knack with romantic chemistry is unparalleled in modern Hollywood cinema. Cooper-Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and Bale-Adams in American Hustle are dynamite, shooting sparks every time their characters touch one another. When Cooper and Lawrence dance in Silver Lining Playbook’s thrilling climax, or when jazz-loving Bale and Adams realize they’re meant for each other while drinking and listening to Duke Ellington’s “Jeep Blues,” worlds turn.

Elsewhere, his star-powered ensemble casts ground his Hollywood stories somewhere near the intersection of fantastical Mulholland Drive and realistic Crenshaw Avenue. The wildest of these characters in Joy are Joy’s bed-ridden, androphobic, soap-opera-obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen) and her black boyfriend; Joy’s Venezuelan rock-singing divorcé who wants to be the next Tom Jones; and her little daughter whose sticky precociousness and adult intelligence reminds me of Skippy, the cute terrier from McCarey’s The Awful Truth. They’re all ridiculous—excessively so. But they’re also accurate markers of our own wacky families, especially the Latino ones where bedridden Mom is always tuned in to La fea más bella — occupying her downtime between maintaining the house, the kids, work, and her sanity, clinging together with Jeanne Dielman precariousness. With his hyper-specific characters, Russell pays homage to those obscure extended-family-members we never meet but always hear crazy stories about.

On a different note, in American Hustle, Russell finds nuance within a stereotype through the brilliant work he does with Jeremy Renner’s Carmine, the local gum-chewing, Steve-Martin-looking politician. Carmine complicates the usual cinematic convention of the “Corrupt Politician.” For all intents and purposes, Carmine is a good man, who gives more of a damn about changing his local hemisphere in New Jersey than the FBI who are unsympathetically trying to bring him down. Surprisingly, he provides the film with its moral center. Like in the best screwball directors’ works, the supporting players in a Russell join are imbued with an eccentric juju.

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His sympathies with females also make Russell’s films outstanding by popular Hollywood standards, which seem to love the male perspective to slavish degrees. Nowhere is this more apparent than American Hustle, where the most complex character in the male-filled world of American Hustle is actually Irving’s wacky flibbertigibbet of a wife Rosalyn. She is more of a presence than either De Niro’s mob boss or Cooper’s manipulative FBI agent, who are ostensibly the film’s most powerful antagonists. In fact, it’s Rosalyn that almost bring about the ABSCAM plot’s and Irving’s downfall. Rosalyn is more resolved than the other hesitant characters, more assured of herself, more embracing of her secret wiles—and therefore more dangerous to the criminals who try to get in her way.

Yet she doesn’t necessarily crave power. Rosalyn’s materialist desires, like most things in this movie, are a mere façade. All she wants is to live a normal, unflashy life with her husband and her kid. What better way to communicate this than through her first opening action: nearly burning the kitchen down trying to cook a stew for little junior? She’s struggling to hold on to her personal independence and domain in any way she can. Her struggle with herself and her husband, however, is only clear in few and far between moments. Rosalyn’s friends always try to push her into the background of every scene, trying to make her feel insignificant and worthless. It’s this inability to make her voice known, despite her strength and her lightning-fast street smarts, that makes Rosalyn the most tragic character in the Russell-Lawrence trilogy. (In terms of unabashed female fury, however, Rosalyn is a mere dress rehearsal for greater things to come in Lawrence’s shrewd performance as the titular Joy.)

Indeed, it is Jennifer Lawrence where Russell’s films find their steady foundation, a relationship that spells cinematic gold for his aesthetic. She sports an eclectic, rapidfire, no-bullshit, scheming intelligence. She’s a wily fast one, waiting for the guys around her to catch up with her comet’s-streak of sardonicism, witticisms, and winning can-do attitude. Russell’s knack of transforming the mundane into the sublime finds its junction in Lawrence’s face — the eyes always planning three steps ahead, the sarcasm both cutting and deliriously addicting. Their collaboration works so well because they have tapped into the sensual-seductive allure of Hollywood cinema, milking it for all it’s worth. Star glamour reaches its ultimate modern apotheosis in Lawrence’s inspiring females.

At the same time, star power doesn’t prevent people from feeling attached to the characters Lawrence plays. Any person who’s ever felt stigmatized because they’re going through weird mental states or personal hells can relate to Pat and Tiff’s travails. Our culture has encouraged this invisible mentality where mental illness is something that should be buried beneath the surface at all times. For some reason, it’s off-putting to people when you say that you need to see a psychiatrist or take a slew of anxiety meds. But David O. Russell’s films takes the pain and the loneliness out of that. Silver Linings Playbook uses people who don’t necessarily reflect the mentally ill in order to de-stigmatize those very same mental problems that we all go through. The most touching instance of this occurs at a dinner scene where Cooper and Lawrence cheerfully compare their medications and exchange a rapidfire series of “I’ve been there before” looks, much to the consternation of their dinner hosts.

We learn a lot from watching Russell’s films about the grand, absurd messines of the human condition. Even stumble-bumbling fools like the ones headlining American Hustle can be stellar professors. The criminals have little to no sophisticated grasp on the art of the long-con. They’re inexperienced mimics, desperately trying to look smart in a world that threatens to uncover their masks at any second. And despite American Hustle’s authentically-70s old-school-look, its themes are as timeless as its wonderful soundtrack of visionary musicians (Duke, Macca, Elton) to whom we and Sydney and Irving turn for inspiration. O. Russell’s film takes a probing look at identity politics, love, sex, historiography, and how the façades we build to protect our egos end up overtaking our actual identities. It’s both a cautionary tale dripping with sardonicism and a triumphant tale of the individual’s triumph over plasticity. “Don’t fake your feelings; embrace your inner self”—that’s one of the message of David O. Russell’s cinema.

Another message: never be conventional. Go for the risk, even if it means deviating from a recognizable formula, even if it means falling flat on your face. Russell’s artistic integrity keeps him from making the same thing over and over again. He experiments with formulas, enhancing them, making them stronger and utterly unique to him. Joy, for instance, zips by so damn fast, you forget it’s a biopic based on a real person. Unlike most biopics today, it doesn’t treat its subject, Ms. Mangano, like an info-drenched Wikipedia article. Because it doesn’t have a compulsive need to get everything right, it’s free to invent things up, all in the name of rumbling emotional precision. Its biopic subject is something completely out of left-field. When I heard the story of Joy—the woman who invents the Miracle Mop—I laughed my ass off at how utterly absurd the concept sounded. Stephen Hawking? Steve Jobs? Brian Wilson? Pshaw with those geniuses! Instead, let’s make a flick about the humdrum, never-heard-of-her inventor of a common household item that doesn’t arouse even the slightest excitement. (I have a Miracle Mop, but before Joy I certainly never stopped to contemplate its larger philosophical implications in our capitalist society.) Pet Sounds and the iPod this film’s subject is not, yet Joy’s whipsnappery turns Joy into a symbol of shining American everythingness, making it much more profound than the average Hollywood biopic.

When we look back and try to figure out O. Russell’s deal, we’ll have to turn to the elements of his movies which challenge the formulaic nature of today’s film culture. His screenplays tell it like it is. 70% of the lines in an O. Russell land with such an honest, breathtaking, immediacy that you’re taken aback and have to rewind & repeat the DVD to listen to a turn-of-phrase again. It’s because he’s putting so much of what he believes into the mouths of his characters that they work so well. Listen again to that riveting opening monologue in American Hustle, where Christian Bale narrates:

“Did you ever hafta survive and you knew all your choices were bad? I learned how to survive when I was a kid? My father ran a glass business of the Bronx. I would much rather be on the taking side than on the being-taken side any day of the week. I became a different kind of person, ya know? I became a con-artist, from the feet up, all the way.”

When you hear that, it becomes so gobsmackingly clear that he’s talking about himself, about his position as a commercial director in Hollywood attracting Oscar buzz and Golden Globe champagne, about his struggles with producers to fund his films and his belief that he would rather break a few knuckles to maintain artistic autonomy over his works than have them broken for him by an impersonal producer who doesn’t know his Mad Max from his San Andreas. He’s trying to keep a semblance of honesty with himself while at the same time satisfying their needs to be commercially viable. It’s the same auteurist tightrope that the commercially successful directors, from Hitchcock to Hawks, from McCarey to Minnelli, traversed; they “smuggle” their personal standpoints within commercially-successful products.

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When we experience an O. Russell movie, we’re coasting through a hyperkinetic, Romantic universe overflowing with feeling. Like the world’s most existential Disneyland ride, O. Russell the tour guide takes us through a mind-trip of our fears and desires as if we were kids discovering the adult world for the first time: the torture of that first love, the fright of our first mental breakdowns, the economic failures of our first meager years in the workforce. Taking a detour through labyrinths of rage and pent-up frustration, O. Russell’s ride tosses us about as we get (temporarily) stuck in our own thorny neuroses. Finally, however, we see the light at tunnel’s end, and we are delivered from the darkness of anger and confusion by humanistic revelations, senses of inner growth, and maturations from within the individual. These are the rough roads that O. Russell and his kooks traverse, and we the audience become intricately tangled in their journeys.

The cinema of O. Russell is the cinema of raging dreamers, of unsuccessful loners who will soon be delivered from their funks into unforeseeably bright futures, but who will experience hell along the way. Like O. Russell’s lost souls in I Heart Huckabees, we find ourselves in existential funks every day, no matter how small. “Am I in the right job? Does any of what I’m doing matter in the end? What next after university? Am I truly happy with my lover/girl-boyfriend/spouse/whoever?” Part of the gratification that comes with his movies is their ability to alleviate these worries by acknowledging them. They don’t give cheap answers like Hollywood pictures are wont of giving. They make you feel like you’re not alone and that there is a silver lining to every cruddy P-set and every sudden break-up and every vile temper tantrum. David O. Russell’s films are not treacle-y, they’re not dishonest, they’re not messy, and they’re not “sell-outs”: they define what it means to be living today, here, now.

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2 Comments on In Praise of David O. Russell

  1. Abby
    April 21, 2016 at 12:50 pm (1 year ago)

    This is a fabulous article! Well-written and thorough, it captures what most of the public does not understand about David O. Russell’s work. I previously worked with his material through a different medium. Few people realize how complicated his characters and themes are. While Joy may not have been living and breathing perfection, it was a gorgeous film (visually in particular) that captured a sense of wonder. The “existential Disneyland” bit was an accurate way of summing up his work.

    Reply
  2. Elbathombre
    June 11, 2016 at 6:06 pm (11 months ago)

    This article is more in praise of David O. Russell’s screenplays, which is understandable since he does have a knack for dialogue and making it natural to the dysfunctional characters he puts on screen.
    However, he completely fails as a director when it comes to translating that screenplay into visual terms, the most important job of a director. He is incompetent in the art of space manipulation, never knowing how to stage and block his actors effectively.

    Reply

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