David O. Russell’s Movies Are About the Insanity Lurking Just Beneath Our Placid Surfaces

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Nov. 16 2012 12:32 PM

Flirting With Disaster

David O. Russell’s movies are about anger and insanity lurking just beneath our placid surfaces.

Still of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook.
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell's newest film, Silver Linings Playbook

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.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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.

With Russell's new film, Silver Linings Playbook, the transformation is complete. Gone are the vivid colors, wide open spaces, and hallucinatory moments he'd gravitated toward until his Huckabees setback. His most recent two films feature muted palettes, claustrophobic mise en scene, and a straightforward storytelling approach. The kaleidoscopic experimentation of his earlier work has vanished, replaced by a far more mainstream-friendly caution. But Russell's fingerprints remain detectable if you look closely enough.

I could never quite manage to connect the dots as Russell's early career unfolded and he flitted between seemingly unrelated topics and contexts. He seemed determined to resist pigeonholing. Yes, we could always count on him for those unexpected music cues: '90s dirge-rockers Morphine soundtracking the mother-son sexual horseplay in Spanking the Monkey; '70s soft-rockers Chicago accompanying a frantic drive through the war-torn Iraqi desert in Three Kings; Led Zeppelin's alternately languid/thrashy "What Is and What Never Should Be" punctuating a bipolar freakout in Silver Linings. And there is always that signature shot: a restless, handheld camera pingponging between faces as a verbal fight escalates, accelerates, and explodes into physicality—this happens at least once in each of Russell’s films.

But as I watched a screening of Silver Linings Playbook last week, the entire Russell oeuvre suddenly clicked into place for me: Undergirding his choices is an auteurlike focus on a single, connective theme. Russell‘s animating notion is the uncertainty, insanity, anger, and passion that lurk just beneath our placid surfaces. In the director's commentary track on the Spanking the Monkey DVD, he ruminates on the ubiquity of uncomfortable work and family environments that become "oppressive" precisely because we are not allowed to discuss our discomfort. In real life, we are all pleasantries and grins in office hallways and at dinner tables—while below roil unspoken hurts and resentments. In Russell’s films, though, those hidden emotions never fail to boil over. Time and again, an authority figure will seem to be in control but will then unleash an unexpected salvo of inner chaos. In Spanking, an imperious mother feels so sexually neglected that she resorts to fooling around with her own son; in Flirting, a buttoned-up federal agent is dosed with LSD and embraces his inner weird; in Huckabees, a smarmily shmoozy corporate executive is tortured by crippling self-hatred.

Wahlberg, as an actor, seems perfectly tailored to carry out Russell's vision. Marky Mark has a jocky, everydude exterior, yet excels at conveying vulnerability. In Huckabees, he's a muscle-y fireman with a paralyzing fixation on unanswerable existential questions; The Fighter finds him confidently brawling inside the ring but barely able to stand up to his own mom at home. Wahlberg was originally slotted for the lead role in Silver Linings, and his replacement Bradley Cooper ends up playing a sort of Wahlberg surrogate: a slightly oafish Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who suffers from deep-seated psychological turmoil.

Russell no doubt fancies himself one of these conflicted beefy/thoughtful dudes. His aesthetic seems to merge in equal parts his childhood, in a combustible Jewish/Italian household (he's spoken of hellacious arguments between his parents, and has alluded to a drunk-driving accident involving his mother), with college years spent at Amherst during which he studied Buddhist philosophy under Robert Thurman. His sets themselves replicate this bifurcated dynamic: In the infamous YouTube clip of his Huckabees dust-up, Russell is attempting to film an erudite discussion about the nature of existence, but he ends up screaming, smashing props, and calling Lily Tomlin a "cunt."

Russell's recent run of success (Silver Linings is generating considerable awards buzz) may paint him as a font of audience-friendly, middlebrow fare. But the rage that fuels his work has never really gone away. He's just decided to more deeply submerge it beneath a pleasant exterior.