David O. Russell wrote his first feature-length film, Spanking the Monkey, while he was bored on jury duty. He filmed it in 25 days. Though this coming-of-age story earnestly delved into incest, sexual assault, and attempted matricide, it somehow still got laughs—enough to win it the 1994 audience award at Sundance.
Personally, I've never found incest an ideal thematic launchpad for jokes. But the stylistic template Russell created—a manic, sharply intelligent world in which characters might slug each other in the nose shortly after attempting to mathematically calculate the area defined by an intersecting cone and parabola—carried through into his next two films, and quickly made him one of my favorite contemporary directors. Russell's follow-up effort was a whip-smart screwball comedy (1996's Flirting With Disaster) that marked the cleverest example of the form since Preston Sturges' magical run. His third outing was a hyperkinetic, men-on-a-mission war movie (1999's Three Kings) that looked and felt unlike any war movie that had come before it, with supersaturated desert landscapes and jarring tonal shifts.
And then, as a crowning achievement, Russell made a glorious mess.
After the triumph of Three Kings—having shown he could handle big budgets, complex action sequences, and major Hollywood stars—Russell had the clout to make any sort of film he could imagine. He'd been masterfully slipping in and out of genres, following no clear pattern. What challenge might he tackle next? It turned out his dream project was a formally ambitious film about internal doubt; about hiding our true selves behind glossy social masks; about humanity's ongoing effort to balance the lure of nihilism against the search for meaning.
If you guessed that this was not a recipe for box office crushitude, you guessed correctly. I [Heart] Huckabees imagines a pair of "existential detectives" (delightfully embodied by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) who investigate their clients' weighty spiritual conundrums. It is a brilliant film—warm-hearted, hilarious, and determined to sift through the shards of its own madness to locate a few vital truths. I adored it. But the moviegoing public of 2004 was not on board. A putative comedy, Huckabees spends significant amounts of time showing us characters weepily confronting their own insecurities, or lamenting the essential cruelty at the core of the human condition. The nearest it comes to feel-good closure is its suggestion that we are all interconnected as we trudge together through life's shitstorm. Unlike Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—2004's other deepthink philosophical comedy—Huckabees doesn't bother with any of that pedestrian, crowd-pleasing romance.
Russell hit a real rough patch in the wake of the Huckabees disappointment. Clips of a volcanic argument he'd had on set with Lily Tomlin appeared on YouTube, branding Russell as not merely a self-indulgent failure but also an angry jerk. He touched bottom when his next film—a health-care-themed comedy with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel that sounds like it promised to be off-the-charts crazypants—ran into funding difficulties and never even finished shooting.
Redemption came, as it has for so many of us, at the hands of Mark Wahlberg. Having hit it off with Russell while collaborating on Three Kings and Huckabees, Wahlberg lobbied for his old pal to take over his labor-of-love boxing film The Fighter when original director Darren Aronofsky bowed out. For the chastened Russell, this marked a return to the sparer working methods of his Spanking the Monkey days: tight budgets and only about a month of shooting. The simplicity seemed to liberate him. Russell’s direction was unobtrusive, but he injected much-needed emotional texture into a classic sports narrative—deftly teasing out the gnarled family dynamics at the center of this true story. Aronofsky would have delivered a bleaker, grittier film; in Russell's hands, The Fighter became spritely and fun, with torrents of loony crosstalk and even some slapstick farce. The film and Russell's directing were both nominated for Oscars. After a six-year hiatus, Russell was back for his second act.