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.