Thursday, February 21, 2013

David O. Russell Is From Another Time

David O. Russell might have traveled here from the past. Whether or not you believe in time travel, his brand of filmmaking in today's world is remarkable. He is the only director working today with a penchant for telling stories (that touch on tough topics) with incredible humor and wit, without making a joke out his characters. The joke is not on anyone in a David O. Russell picture –– but it might just be on life itself. He's the only director I can think of who's gifted enough to make true screwball, romantic comedies out of even the most dour scenarios. And he's the only one whose work comes close to directors from around the Depression-era, those who were able to bring a kind of magical, yet believable, earnestness to the silver screen. David O. Russell could be, might be (or is he??) from another time.
Even his name, David O. Russell, belongs in another era. It has that kind of ring to it (it even recalls the big name of Selznick, the other David O.) In my mind, he could be out there in the 1930's or 1940's, receiving accolades alongside his 'peers-from-another-time', Frank Capra or Howard Hawks. Imagine a creepy moment now –– like in 'The Shining', when you realize Jack Torrance had always been at The Overlook Hotel as he appears in that photograph from 1921.
Maybe there's a photograph of David O. Russell alongside Preston Sturges at a film directors' function of some sort, somewhere. This theory is both delightful and scary.
Preston Sturges | David O. Russell
And speaking of Preston Sturges, his 'Sullivan's Travels' is one of just a handful of movies that struck such a deep chord in me, instilling the desire to be involved with filmmaking in some capacity. I see a lot of what I love about 'Sullivan's Travels' in David O. Russell's films.
Is David O. Russell the improved Sullivan... incarnate?
That 'Sullivan's Travels' connection can be broken down into three aspects that appear in each of my four favorite David O. Russell films:
  1. Main protagonist embarks on an unusual, perspective-altering journey, which directly ties with his career or family. 
  2. Protagonist meets unusual and alluring people along the way –– who join this journey and make a huge impression on said protagonist.
  3. Characters depicted in the story manage to be both incredibly easy to relate to... and yet, somehow, they are unlike anyone you'll meet in life (reality+magic, ordinary people living extraordinary lives –– or the failed attempt at the opposite, as in the case of 'Sullivan's Travels'.)
In fact, I'll take it a step further and say that David O. Russell may have actually been like John L. Sullivan (again, that name from another era) –– a successful Hollywood director who wants to show the world what real life and real problems are like, only to realize people would rather laugh and be entertained when they watch a movie to escape from all the misery of life (not to relive it again) –– however, David O. Russell has achieved what Sullivan had hoped to achieve and beyond. He found the key to showing what has potential to feel real and true, without losing your audience, is by balancing that with strong doses of cheer. Maybe David O. Russell's time traveling is in fact that he is the new-and-improved, and wiser, Sullivan... incarnate!
The four films that have this 'Sulivan's Travels' connection for me are:

Flirting With Disaster (1996) 
I'm a huge fan of this movie (it's been my favorite of David O. Russell's until 'Silver Linings Playbook' came around. Now they are tied for favorite.)  
Quintessential screwball comedy. It's just as funny today as it was in 1996. Considering how poorly comedies from the 1990's hold up, that says an awful lot about David O. Russell's timeless sensibilities. 
Just thinking about this movie makes me laugh. Did anyone else notice the 'Bringing Up Baby' references? For example, the fiance/spouse in both films is a scientist. I still cry from laughing at the various madcap misadventures that take place on this journey, and I especially love the accidental acid trip scene with the Schlichtings. 
As with all of Russell's films, could the cast have been any better? Apart of the main trio, I'm thrilled there's a movie I can watch containing Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Richard Jenkins, Josh Brolin –– the list goes on.
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
So many heavy questions about life and our very existence are at play –– and yet somehow, this movie couldn't be any lighter or more enjoyable. I heart this movie (sorry, had to say it.)
The casting here is once again top-notch. Lily Tomlin returned to work with David O. Russell (and famously threw a fit in a moment of frustration) playing an 'existential detective', along with Dustin Hoffman. Naomi Watts is truly memorable in her oddball role, Isabelle Huppert and Mark Wahlberg round out the cast with some great moments. There is really no shortage of talent here.
'I Heart Huckabees' is a movie that would have fallen apart at the hands of another director, but with David O. Russell's screwball comedy prowess, it's highly entertaining. And I personally love its existential messages and leanings.
The Fighter (2010)
When I sat down in the theater to watch 'the Fighter', I wasn't sure what I was in for, since it looked like it would be another dour but inspirational true-to-life (based on a true story) boxing picture. I was curious to see what David O. Russell wanted to do with it.
The opening sequence of this movie was enough for me to walk out right then and there satisfied and happy. It's probably one of the most buoyant and jubilant opening sequences of all time, perfectly capturing the humorous side of the two brothers, Mickey Ward and Dickey Eklund. It also manages to show us that in this dumpy town, where people could be down and depressed –– they actually know how to live, and to laugh. The opening welcomes you right into their world, and you're happy to join the party.
Another example of brilliant casting: The Ladies. Melissa Leo was about to hit the big time and win an Oscar for her role as Alice Ward, tough mother to quite a lot of kids: countless equally tough daughters (ones with hairstyles, wardrobes and attitudes that don't typically appear on movie screens –– which is hysterical) and the two boxing sons. 
Amy Adams also shows her tougher side in this movie (and by this film, it was obvious what kind of range she has.) Looks can be deceiving, and anyone who has see 'The Fighter' can attest that despite its seemingly down-trodden appearance, it is an extremely uplifting and fun movie to watch. 
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
My favorite movie of 2012 –– and even in recent memory. Forget Bradley Cooper's countless, well-deserved nominations for 'Silver Linings Playbook', his work in this movie is astonishing. His performance has recently been eclipsed by the one given by his talented costar, Jennifer Lawrence, who has actually been winning the awards for which she's been nominated. But don't be mistaken: Bradley Cooper is the shining star of this movie. His is THE performance of the year, in my opinion.
The cast is incredibly talented, like they have been in all of David O. Russell's films. But in 'Silver Linings Playbook', everyone hits their stride in what becomes one of those rare movie experiences where every scene, and every performer in it, is just perfect. 
Again, David O. Russell tackles a tough (and very timely) topic –– mental health –– but he does it with so much warmth, sweetness, and humor that his film becomes a screwball comedy instead of a downer. That is much more challenging and masterful work than making a straight comedy, drama, thriller... what have you. Watching this movie, I laughed, I cried... I cried from laughing. The range of emotions we feel along with the characters is of staggering, in some ways life-altering, proportions. On this particular journey, we are all entirely engaged from start to finish. It's a perfectly executed David O. Russell film. The director is now at the very peak of his game.
Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver are so believable as Bradley Cooper's parents –– their love for their son is palpable and incredibly moving. Like many movie lovers, I agree that it was refreshing to see De Niro back to his rightful place and level here. His collaboration with David O. Russell has been a welcomed reminder of what his acting is all about. As soon as we left the theater after watching 'Silver Linings Playbook', long before others had even heard about it (it was only playing in one theater in all of San Francisco at the time) I announced with assurance to my husband that all four actors –– Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jackie Weaver –– would be nominated for Oscars. I hoped David O. Russell and the movie would, too.
I also hoped Chris Tucker might be on a short list for best supporting actor nominations. In fact, the entire supporting cast was surprisingly excellent.
I wasn't sure what to expect with the dance scenes. I've studied ballet throughout all of my adult years, in particular (and danced whenever I could from grade school through college), and there are certain emotions that movies depicting dancing (or dancers) just don't capture well. Since these two characters are meant to be lowly amateurs, competing for the sake of connecting, I didn't expect much besides humor and potential embarrassment from the final dance sequence.
And here is where I prayed that the film's EDITOR would get an Oscar nomination. (Follow up note: the film's editor did get a nod from the Academy.)  I won't go into verbal detail, but the dance sequence made me cry. Somehow, David O. Russell, the camera crew, the editor –– everyone involved –– understood what this sequence should look like and mean, those moments in motion. I felt exhilarated, and my heart was breaking at the same time. This very surprising scene, its outcome and the way it was executed was pure movie magic. I told my husband between tears, this is a timeless scene –– this scene is an instant classic.
Long after the Oscars and awards brouhaha have ended, people will watch 'Silver Linings Playbook', and that dance sequence (such a classic, rewarding scene) will live on and make people smile, laugh and cry over and over again. Just like any great screwball (or depression-era) comedy, this one will long live in our hearts and minds.


  1. Nice post thanks for your listing..Jennifer Lawrence won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo won for best supporting actor and actress in The Fighter (2010).david o russell interview

    1. Indeed. I mentioned that Melissa Leo won for her role in the post---and this was written before the Oscars ceremony when Jennifer Lawrence won, so I only mentioned the nominees for that one.