|David O. Russell|
With this past weekend's release of Joy, director David O. Russell once again returns with a film that establishes his attempt to be a populous auteur. Ever since his comeback film The Fighter in 2010, the director has made it his goal to make films about the every man; the middle class who strive for a better existence. In a sense, he is doing it more successfully than anyone else. In a time where romantic acting pairs aren't a thing, he has continually made Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper work as a box office draw. To an extent, he is doing the impossible by making throwbacks to feel good films, often with an edge that makes his experiences wholly unique. The following is a ranking of every one of his films from his earlier and angrier days of Spanking the Monkey to the more recent happy side of Joy. Even if these two films are wildly different, it doesn't mean that they're any less interesting as a progression of behavior and craft from a director not known to always be pleasant.
|Left to right: Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg|
1. The Fighter (2010)
There have been few comeback stories in film as impressive as David O. Russell's The Fighter. While the film is itself an underdog story about two brothers with conflicting backgrounds, the director was coming off of his career lows. Between I Heart Huckabees and his recently resurrected scrapped project Accidental Love, his career was spanning out from his initial run of abrasive comedies. Thankfully, he is in top form as he perfects the ensemble casting and feel good story that made for one of the year's best films. It also helps that Christian Bale's performance is among the actor's best work. This was the start of his populous auteur days, and frankly he has never been able to come as close to perfection as he does here.
|Scene from Flirting with Disaster|
2. Flirting with Disaster (1996)
Russell raised eyebrows with his debut film Spanking the Monkey. However, it was more of an idea film than a successful one. In his follow-up, he explores dysfunctional families in one of the strangest broad comedies of the 90's. With an excellent cast that features a mix of old actors (Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Mary Tyler Moore) and new (Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni), the film is a perfect balance of comedic talent working against each other in the perfect balance of dark comedy surrealism. While the director would attempt to be this weird again, he would never be able to top the lightning in a bottle brilliance that was this film.
|Scene from Three Kings|
3. Three Kings (1999)
The one thing that can be said about an earlier Russell is that he was very angry, and you could see it in his films (for better or worse). However, there was no better perfect storm than his only foray into war dramas. With an ensemble lead by George Clooney, it's a film that depicts the horrors of war, but isn't afraid to add a little bit of dark humor into the mix. Russell's aggressive camera pans have never been more assured and while the film is notorious for an incident involving Russell fighting with Clooney, the work on screen more than makes up for it. This is the angry Russell that unfortunately would never be this cynical and focused ever again. Sure, he would make great films, but sometimes you look at Three Kings and realize that his depiction of madness was one of a kind. There was a big loss when he got help and became a good director. Still, it was fun while it lasted.
4. Joy (2015)
His latest film is likely the closest that he's come yet to his run as a populous auteur. With the familiar players in tow, this Jennifer Lawrence-lead drama features some of his most assured directing and gives his cast plenty to do. Its ambitions fit perfectly in to the drama that compliments the drama in ways that were a struggle for the director on his past few films. If nothing else, Lawrence is at her best here as she attempts to sell mops and become the independent woman icon. While the film has some uneven stretches, this film perfectly summarizes Russell's policy: make the ordinary meet the extraordinary by selling them something implausible yet accessible. It's in the hypocrisies that his best form of art lands, and it's probably the first time that his current mold has proven to be more than just a silly gimmick.
|Left to right: Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale|
5. American Hustle (2013)
What's important to note is that this film was made within a year of Silver Linings Playbook's success. To some extent, it is likely why there's an uneven and rushed sensibility at points in this period piece drama/comedy. While the film can be wildly uneven, it combined Russell's stable of actors for a heist film that is not without several uproarious parts. Despite its flaws, every actor is game, and that charm goes a long way towards making it a fascinating experience to witness. It's not a great movie, but worthy of watching for the moments that do work. If there's only one real error to be found, it's in the strange casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence as much-older Christian Bale's wife; whose accent is bad and her over-the-top comedy is a jarring departure from the film's otherwise sensible direction. It feels like a role given to her to bankroll on her Silver Linings Playbook success, and that may be the only truly unnecessary thing about this film.
|Left to right: Lawrence and Cooper|
6. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Whether or not you bought into the hype, this was a monumental film in 2012. It was the film that started Bradley Cooper down the road to an Oscar nomination-a-year habit, and solidified Jennifer Lawrence's stature as one of the up and coming actresses. However, the film feels strangely safe compared to Russell's previous films. It makes sense though that the director would tackle depression, speaking as his early work shows a frustrated man. The only issue is that it doesn't feel entirely honest or believable here, which takes some of the charm away from it. Still, it's adequate when viewed as a romantic comedy that introduced the world to one of the rare movie couples in a time when franchises have dominated name recognition. Still, the magic of Russell proved that it was here to stay, and that may be the film's lasting impact (beyond the trash bag outfit).
|Scene from Spanking the Monkey|
7. Spanking the Monkey (1994)
It's hard to believe that Russell nowadays would make a film whose title translates to masturbation slang. Not only that, but it's a story about a son's strange relationship with his mother. Yes, it grabbed attention upon release when it became a Sundance hit. However, it's a film that unfortunately feels too tame and uninterested in its subject. It could just be that Russell had yet to form his personal style, but even the taboo subject lacks enough juice to make this an interesting project. Though considering that Russell could've gone down the road of juvenile comedies a'la The Farrelly Brothers after this, let's just be thankful that he was able to find a career after this strange choice for a debut.
|Scene from Accidental Love|
8. Accidental Love (2015)
This film is arguably the low point of Russell's career. It was such a problematic production that the director removed his name from the production, leaving it shelved for many years. It's easy to see what he was going for with its political subtext, especially as I Heart Huckabees attempted to be a high concept abrasive comedy. However, there were too many juvenile jokes and the film felt insecure due to several editing choices (likely from those who took on the thankless job of releasing this). It's not a great film and its plot is a little too ridiculous to achieve Russell's preferred goal. However, it strangely works as a slightly below average studio comedy from the late 90's. Its only flaw is that it doesn't work as a Russell film at all.
|Scene from I Heart Huckabees|
9. I Heart Huckabees (2004)
This was the breaking point for Russell. Following a string of pretty good films that blurred abrasive comedy with absurd concepts, he finally met his match with this existential comedy that is more infuriating than funny. With one of his strongest casts (and Shania Twain to boot), it's a shame that this film doesn't work on any level. It's a film that is largely known for Russell's conflict with Lily Tomlin, and it might as well be a reflection of why he needed anger therapy. It's an overeager film with too many ideas to be great and not enough focus to at least make them fun. If the idea of watching Jason Schwartzman cover himself with mud seems intriguing to you, go nuts. Otherwise, just know that 10 years into his career, Russell needed a reboot; and thankfully it was one that paid off nicely.