The Films of David O. Russell
Spanking the Monkey
Flirting with Disaster
I Heart Huckabees (October 2/04)
I Heart Huckabees marks David O. Russell's fourth film, and it's just as uneven and disappointing as his previous efforts. Though he's assembled a great cast, the esoteric nature of Russell's screenplay prevents one from wholeheartedly embracing the film's storyline. The movie, which follows an environmental activist (Jason Schwartzman's Albert Markovski) as he's drawn into a series of absurd, philosophically-motivated situations, often seems weird for weirdness' sake, and it's clear that Russell is trying to work through existential issues that have plagued philosophers for centuries - which ensures that one's enjoyment of the proceedings is tied directly to one's knowledge of such matters (ie if you spend a lot of free time reading the works of Kant or Schopenhauer, this is your movie). The real problem is that Russell doesn't give us any characters worth following for two hours; for the most part, these people essentially act as mouthpieces for the director to explore and express philosophical ideas. And while there are a few chuckles to be had, for a comedy - which is what I Heart Huckabees purports to be - there's certainly a dearth of laughs here. At least, though, Russell (along with cinematographer Peter Deming) imbues the movie with a visual style that's always intriguing. Jon Brion delivers an expectedly loopy yet enjoyable score, while among the performers, only Mark Wahlberg makes any kind of impact. Wahlberg plays Tommy Corn, a firefighter who's been forced to re-evaluate his life after the events of 9/11. The actor does a wonderful job of becoming this salt-of-the-earth type forced to grapple with some pretty heavy issues; Wahlberg also provides the film with its few laughs, particularly in a sequence that finds Tommy confronting a religious family on their beliefs. The bottom line is that I Heart Huckabees is just too experimental to appeal to a wide selection of viewers, though there's no denying this is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of affair.
A typically underwhelming effort from David O. Russell, The Fighter follows aspiring pugilist Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) as he attempts to establish himself as a professional boxer - with his efforts assisted (and hindered) by his fighter-turned-junkie brother (Christian Bale's Dickie). The relatively promising nature of the film's true-life setup is squandered by Russell right from the get-go, as the filmmaker immediately alienates the viewer by employing a visual style that couldn't possibly be more obnoxious (ie shaky camerawork, tight close-ups, etc). It's subsequently not surprising to note that one's efforts at working up any interest in the protagonists' ongoing exploits fall completely and utterly flat, with the decision to emphasize characters that are almost uniformly unpleasant proving instrumental in cementing the film's pervasively disagreeable atmosphere. Russell's efforts at evoking a vibe of authenticity are, as a result, rendered completely moot, and there's little doubt that the talent cast, despite their best efforts, is simply unable to breathe any life into the nigh unwatchable proceedings - which is a shame, really, given that the film does contain a very small handful of strong performances. (Bale's striking physical transformation ultimately stands as the only impressive aspect of his work here, as the actor turns in an aggressively over-the-top performance that stands out like a sore thumb.) By the time it morphs into an eye-rollingly standard underdog sports story, The Fighter has undoubtedly established itself as a palpably misguided drama that evaporates from one's memory minutes after the credits begin to roll.
Silver Linings Playbook
Based on the (superior) novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook follows Bradley Cooper's Pat Solitano as he attempts to get his life back on track after being released from a mental hospital - with the movie exploring Pat's relationships with the various people in his life, including his obsessive-compulsive father (Robert De Niro's Pat) and his neighbor/potential love interest (Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany). Filmmaker David O. Russell has infused Silver Linings Playbook with a typically offbeat and deliberately-paced feel that is, at the outset, not terribly troublesome, as the writer/director admittedly does a nice job of establishing (and developing) the various supporting characters and eliciting a career-best performance from Cooper. (In terms of the former, the movie boasts appearances from an agreeably eclectic selection of actors - including Jacki Weaver, Julia Stiles, and Chris Tucker.) But Russell's notoriously low-rent visual sensibilities become more and more problematic as time progresses, as the movie's ugly appearance is, to an increasingly demonstrative degree, exacerbated by a hit-and-miss midsection and a meandering narrative - with, in terms of the latter, the film's sheer overlength ensuring that many scenes come off as needlessly padded out or altogether superfluous. And although the proceedings have been peppered with a handful of standout sequences (eg Tiffany stands up to De Niro's intimidating Pat), Silver Linings Playbook is ultimately unable to wholeheartedly become the feel-good romantic comedy that Russell has clearly intended - with the filmmaker's inability to elicit any real emotional response from the viewer during either the climactic dance competition or the upbeat final stretch certainly indicative of the movie's failings.
Though it boasts an impressive cast and a promising storyline, American Hustle ultimately establishes itself as yet another disappointment from David O. Russell - with the film, saddled with a 138 minute (!) running time, often coming off as an interminable and downright boring piece of work that one endures more than one experiences. The movie, which details the 1970s-set exploits of several sketchy figures (including Christian Bale's Irving Rosenfeld, Bradley Cooper's Richie DiMaso, and Amy Adams' Sydney Prosser), unfolds at an almost excessively deliberate pace that prevents the viewer from connecting to the material on an ongoing basis, with the hands-off atmosphere perpetuated by an erratic and far-from-cohesive narrative that lurches from one uninvolving, ill-conceived set-piece to the next (ie there's just no momentum here). It is, as a result, not surprising to note that the talented cast is given little of consequence or substance to work with here, as Russell often seems more concerned with sustaining the film's flashy aesthetic than with transforming the protagonists into three-dimensional, wholeheartedly interesting figures - with the most obvious casualty of Russell's superficial modus operandi Jennifer Lawrence's barely-developed Rosalyn Rosenfeld. (The actress attempts to compensate by offering up an irrelevent, wildly over-the-top performance that's like nails on a chalkboard, which is similarly true, to varying degrees, of virtually all of the movie's assorted players). American Hustle's inability to capture the viewer's attention, even fleetingly, ultimately cements its place as a disastrous and thoroughly misguided endeavor, with Russell's palpable incomptence insidiously affecting every aspect of the proceedings and ensuring that, with few exceptions, the movie is hopelessly devoid of compelling sequences.
Based on a true story, Joy follows Jennifer Lawrence's title character as she attempts to make something of herself by developing an easy-to-use-and-clean mop - with the film detailing the impact that Joy's ongoing efforts has on her various family members (including Robert De Niro's Rudy, Diane Ladd's Mimi, and Édgar Ramírez's Tony). It's perhaps not surprising to note that Joy contains an almost unreasonable emphasis on the protagonist's thoroughly dysfunctional home life, as director David O. Russell leans hard on his continuing (and hopelessly tedious) obsession with squabbling family members - with the early part of the proceedings consisting, for the most part, of nothing more than a series of arguments and fights among the main characters. The aggressively unpleasant atmosphere is exacerbated by a series of underwhelming performances (ie Lawrence is clearly miscast as the central character) and Russell's typically garish directorial choices - with, in terms of the latter, the movie suffering from a series of elements that prove more distracting than anything else. (There is, for example, an recurring bit involving a televised soap opera that's nothing short of disastrous.) The nigh unwatchable vibe persists right up until Joy begins developing the aforementioned mop, with the character's dealings with various business-oriented figures ensuring that, at the very least, the film's second half is interesting. Bradley Cooper's appearance as a home-shopping-network producer perpetuates Joy's decent-second-half feel, although, predictably, Russell essentially renders the improved atmosphere moot with a dull and virtually endless climactic stretch - which, it goes without saying, confirms the picture's place as just another misbegotten endeavor from a seriously lackluster filmmaker.