“No More Fake Shit”: The Taming of David O. Russell

David O. Russell began his career as an auteur who asked difficult questions. Now he makes non-threatening Oscar bait. What happened?

American Hustle

Since 1984, the Criterion Collection has admirably and compulsively worked to shine a light on great cinema. Labeling itself as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films,” the Criterion Collection currently consists of over 700 films made by fewer than 400 different filmmakers. If you make one great film, you’re likely to make another one.

The difference between a filmmaker with one film in the collection (Kevin Smith) and a filmmaker with over 10 (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) can be boiled down to whether or not that director is an auteur. The filmmakers who are most celebrated are often the ones who are most distinct, whose style and themes are prevalent in all or most of their output.

An auteur can make a bad film, but the film’s poor reception will often come along with the caveat that he or she was “trying something new.” We celebrate the failures of an auteur, and then twenty years later, re-label it as a success. One reason why the auteur is so celebrated in filmmaking is that raising money for a film production is incredibly taxing, as outlined in the recent James Toback/Alec Baldwin documentary, Seduced and Abandoned. Filmmakers are losing such battles with the financiers. Many end up taking studio gigs to pay the bills (Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, anyone?) or retreat from moviemaking for long stretches (Albert Brooks hasn’t directed a film in eight years).

There are some auteurs who can take a misstep into the treachery of Hollywood and make it back in one piece (such as David Lynch following Dune). For most, though, a critical or financial disaster often leads to another such travesty that is Hollywood-influenced and the rapid succession can land a fatal blow to any fledgling auteur (Brian DePalma, Peter Bogdanovich). These are the filmmakers who have one or two titles in the Criterion Collection (Danny Boyle, Michael Bay), but no more, and never again.

One such failing auteur of recent decades is David O. Russell. His downfall began in 2004. The filmmaker behind such provocative and money-losing ventures as Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, and Three Kings hadn’t made a film in five years when he returned with I Heart Huckabees, an existential comedy that was despised by philosophy majors, dismissed by critics, and ignored by audiences nationwide. This was nothing new for Russell. None of his movies had made money, and unlike Three Kings, which cost $75 million to produce, I Heart Huckabees was a low-risk proposition, budgeted at $20 million (in Russell’s defense about the difficulty to finance something like Huckabees in today’s marketplace, such a film would likely cost $5 million and be dumped on video on demand).

For the next six years, though, Russell went silent. Aside from creating one little-seen political documentary short, Soldiers Pay, and one unfinished comedy set in D.C., Nailed, all that’s publically known about Russell’s output from 2004-2010 is that he got divorced, raised his son, and received an executive producer credit, somewhat unexpectedly, on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

Russell also became a bit of a reluctant YouTube star when a video of him berating actress Lilly Tomlin on the set of Huckabees leaked online. When the director reemerged in 2010 with his new movie The Fighter, he came across in interviews as repentant for his past misdeeds (which included a fist fight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings) and grateful to be working. During a 2012 Hollywood Report Director’s Roundtable interview, Russell described himself during the filming of I Heart Huckabees as having “my head up my ass” and explained his situation at the time:

My greatest struggle as a failure in any way was losing my own way. You can be given enough rope in this business to hang yourself if you’re not careful. And I see it all of the time and I experienced it where you start over-thinking things and you try to make things too interesting or become too particular, nothing feels right, no project feels right. And what I came out of that with was, “Keep it raw, man. Keep it real. Keep it emotional.”

Six years after Huckabees, Russell was explicitly labeled a for-hire director on The Fighter and critics hailed the restraint with which he directed Christian Bale and Melissa Leo on their Oscar-winning performances. When people said that you wouldn’t know The Fighter was a Russell film unless you saw his name in the credits, it was meant as a compliment.

He seemed to be following his post-Huckabees credo: “Keep it raw. Keep it real. Keep it emotional.” The idea of being “emotional,” in particular, had often seemed allusive to the steely humorist behind Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. Even when a pre-Fighter David O. Russell dealt with explicit emotions, as he did in Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings, they were used in order to elicit the most bracing and complex of reactions.

How did you feel about the intersection of adolescence, responsibility and incest at the heart of Spanking the Monkey? And what about Three Kings? Refugees were being killed indiscriminately; an Iraqi soldier waved a white flag and got a bullet to the head. The usual solace after such war epics was that the director let you feel as though you’d been a good citizen for enduring such carnage. Russell offered no such release. You laughed through long stretches of Three Kings. What did that say about you as a person? How did it make you feel? Before The Fighter, Russell was a filmmaker who fucked with the audience in this way. He made you decide if you hated him or loved him. He tried to make you decide if you hated or loved yourself. It was certainly an emotional experience — but all of the emotions were being felt after the movie was over.

Be American, Succeed in America

The Fighter

Looking back at The Fighter in 2013, it’s clear why Russell thought that this new mode of filmmaking would suit him. The project came to him ready-made. He got to put his stamp on it through the movie-within-a-movie aspects of Dicky Elglund’s HBO documentary (a detail that must have tickled Russell’s more internalizing, provocative Huckabees tendencies given that The Fighter itself was already based on a true story). The film dealt with the nature of identity and family (ideas discussed in Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, and Huckabees). To top it all off, The Fighter was also about what it means to succeed in America and be American — topics that Russell discussed, skewered, and blew up with Three Kings, his most furious, incisive, and idiosyncratic creation.

The success of The Fighter, though, has ruined David O. Russell for filmmaking. His subsequent efforts, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle have been attempts to recreate The Fighter’s formula: take a Hollywood project and transform it into something personal. It’s a technique that was seemingly perfected by Steven Soderbergh, but has been something of a non-starter for most everyone else.

On the auteur spectrum of recent American filmmakers, which measures both the idiosyncratic nature of a director and the level of success with which they are able to execute their vision, you have Wes Anderson and Todd Solondz on one end, Soderbergh in the middle, and Gary Marshall on the far side towards failure. Russell pre-The Fighter was squarely on the Wes Anderson end of the spectrum.

Following American Hustle, though, Russell is obviously aspiring towards the Soderbergh camp, but he is actually following in the footsteps of Sydney Pollack, a filmmaker who experienced great success (Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie) without ever finding a distinct voice. He made a lot of money for film studios and now he’s dead: if anyone rents Tootsie, it’s not because Pollack directed it.

“No More Fake Shit”

Silver Linings Playbook

When looking for differences between early- and late-era David O. Russell films, one needs to look no further than the opening scene. Russell’s second film, Flirting with Disaster, begins with a voiceover sequence showing strangers on the streets of New York City. Ben Stiller’s character, adopted at birth, is explaining that any of the people walking around New York could be his mother or father. He imagines the people having sex with one another. He theorizes that if he’d been raised by at least one of his biological parents, he wouldn’t be such a nervous person.

Or what about the opening scene of Three Kings, discussed earlier, where Mark Wahlberg humorously and horrifically shoots and kills an unarmed Iraqi following Desert Storm? What could be more troubling for an American filmgoer, finding humor in the death of someone trying to surrender to a U.S. soldier?

How about the opening of I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s least assured but spectacularly strange fourth auteur feature, in which Jason Schwartzman’s existentially troubled open spaces advocate recites a poem to a boulder, “You rock, rock”?

These types of scenes are specific. They’re odd. They’re funny and idiosyncratic. You watch them happen and you know that the voice behind the film is specific, that the filmmaker is trying to get at something. He’s trying to have a conversation with you. He’s reaching out and saying, “I know this is a little weird, but do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

The Russell who made The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle isn’t trying to have a conversation with anyone. He’s telling you, this is how it is: family can save you from your problems (The Fighter), love can save you from mental illness (Silver Linings Playbook), being an honest person means that you won’t end up alone (American Hustle).

In the opening of American Hustle, Christian Bale’s character is gluing on a hairpiece. Fans of the movie will note that this scene perfectly encompasses the themes of Hustle: it’s about people trying to be false, trying to be someone who they’re not.

What’s overlooked in this assessment is that the whole production is fake. Movies are fake. We know that Christian Bale isn’t really bald. We know that he gained 40 lbs. to play the role. Opening with this sequence is the same as using a “555” phone number in a film or showing a character’s fingers as they play piano: we notice the artificiality, the work put in by the actors and filmmakers.

Also, take this idea of being a genuine person, this idea that con artists are “just like everyone else” — trying to get paid, trying to be someone that they are not. What average American citizen has the luxury to sit around and wonder about the artificiality of their existence? These feel like the sort of questions that well-paid actors and directors get to ponder. Rich artists are interested in how genuine and realistic they’re being in their work, or at least if they’re coming across as such. Everyone else in America is just trying to pay the bills. By committing to the lazy, performance-centric themes of American Hustle, Russell is exemplifying the filmmaker’s danger in not “over-thinking things.” It can become very easy to avoid thinking at all.

Going for the Gold

Three Kings

It can often be unfair to accuse a filmmaker of chasing after an Academy Award, but David O. Russell is clearly doing just that. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another director who has been so steadfast in his quest. Martin Scorsese set out to win an Oscar beginning in 2002 with Gangs of New York and then again with 2004’s The Aviator. Scorsese appeared to put his quest on hold when he made the relatively straightforward cop/gangster film The Departed two years later, and the Academy promptly rewarded him for going back to his roots with Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards.

From 2010-2013, David O. Russell’s films have been nominated for a combined 25 Oscars and each one has earned more money at the U.S. box office than the one that came before it. The Fighter made $93 million and American Hustle (having earned $116 million as of January 19), is all but guaranteed to out-gross Silver Linings Playbook in the U.S. With each film, Russell’s crowd- and Oscar-pleasing powers grow: making more money, gaining more nominations (seven for Fighter, eight for Silver Linings and ten for Hustle), dragging Russell up to the A-list and beyond. It’s amazing that he hasn’t yet set up a TV production company with a first-look deal at CBS or appeared in any American Express commercials.

All in good time, the Eye of Sauron seems to call out, all in good time.

Serious Topics, Varying Approaches

While the logline for Silver Linings Playbook sounds like the stuff of vintage David O. Russell (bipolar couple falls in love, tries to help each other through life), Russell doesn’t “over-think” it. The film contains no characters like Mark Wahlberg’s I Heart Huckabees post-9/11 firefighter, who addressed U.S. dependency on foreign oil by riding his bike to the scene of the latest blaze rather than hopping on the back of a fire engine.

Oscar contenders are not allowed to include such bizarre and seemingly offensive flourishes. Competing studios would have had a field day if Huckabees had been an “Oscar movie,” requesting 9/11 firefighters to picket outside cinemas, asking if Wahlberg’s character were based on a real-person and if not, “Why include him in the film?” In comparison, the strangest detail in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is that Bradley Cooper’s character wears plastic bag when he runs. And even that makes sense—it helps him sweat. There are a number of such details throughout scenes in Silver Livings where attempts are made to elicit laughs from the idea of a character being “off his meds.” As Cooper concocts a plan to win back his wife, most of which is done while he’s not being medicated or undergoing proper therapy for his illness, we’re meant to laugh at his troubled exploits.

While this is exactly the sort of material that early Russell would be able to twist into knots, asking the audience about their own relationship to mental health and what it means to be content with oneself, Russell has no taste for such inquires. Upon first viewing, it’s easy to appreciate Silver Linings as a clever twist on the romantic comedy formula: it’s Notting Hill except Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts are both bipolar. It sounds like the sort of concept that Harmony Korine might have explored in between Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy.

That’s not to say that Hollywood should not make conventional romantic comedies about people who struggle with mental illness. It’s just that Russell has shown that he is capable of treating such topics with thoughtfulness and mental vigor. In his post-Fighter hands, Silver Linings Playbook is completely safe, functioning as advocacy entertainment about mental illness. It aims to be prescriptive, making the boring and aggressively offensive argument that finding true love can save someone from their troubles.

There was a quiet backlash to Silver Linings Playbook that never reached Academy voters, encompassed in the remarks of Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos, who referred to the film’s “cheap use of mental health as legs for plot.” Angelakos went on to note that Hollywood dramatizes this situation even as “insurance companies barely recognize mental illness as health.”

That might seem like a lot of “complexity” for Russell to deal with in a meet-cute romantic comedy, but he’s proven that he can do it in the past, which makes his lack of ambition here all the more troubling. Are our greatest popular artists allowed to phone in it when the going gets tough? Maybe we deserve Russell’s frazzled, tormented self. Maybe we want to give him enough rope with which to hang himself (not literally, obviously).

Compare Silver Linings Playbook with Three Kings, which received zero Academy Award nominations. Russell takes the time to think and deal with deeply complex, troubling themes: the nature of war, commerce, and responsibility. The film has fun action sequences and moments of deeply cynical humor, but Russell always seems to be taking his responsibility as a filmmaker quite seriously. He doesn’t know what the answers are to questions regarding foreign policy and colonialism. He seems to come away from his experience telling us that war is bad, but maybe people are worse. He shrugs his shoulders even as he’s shaking the audience. In The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Russell doesn’t want to shake anyone. He’s reaching out and offering the biggest of bear hugs.

Russell’s Place in History

I Heart Huckabees

As strange as it might sound, it’s possible that Russell ’s secret weapon in dealing with the Hollywood system could have been Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg’s performance in The Fighter was the most interesting thing in that movie. He was subtle and whiney, pushed around and quietly observant. It was an odd piece in a more conventionally crowd-pleasing non-puzzle. Wahlberg has publicly stated that he and Russell had something of a falling out after Wahlberg wasn’t cast in Silver Linings Playbook. I’m not taking anything away from Bradley Cooper — the acting in Russell’s later work is actually spectacular — but a Wahlberg performance in that role might have been just off-putting enough to make the romance at the end seem like less of a fairy tale.

Is it possible, though, that Wahlberg was for Russell what Owen Wilson was for Wes Anderson? Wes Anderson’s first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, were deeply personal films that took place in his home state of Texas, and both he co-wrote with Wilson. Anderson’s last film co-written by Wilson was also his first in unfamiliar territory. The Royal Tenenbaums, like The Fighter, showed a filmmaker outside of his comfort zone working on a different scale. Like The Fighter, The Royal Tenenbaums was a commercial hit for its studio.

Russell, though, definitely learned the wrong lesson. He should have come away from the film realizing that he still had the chops to make movies on any scale. He could have applied that lesson towards making another insane, puzzling auteur-level feature. Instead, he decided that he enjoyed the support system of the studio, he liked the attention that came with Oscar nominations, and he liked relaxing his mind a little bit, not “over-thinking” it. Before Russell’s best director nomination for The Fighter, there were doubts as to whether Hollywood had forgiven him for fighting George Clooney and his tantrum while filming Huckabees. Three Academy Award nominations for best picture later, Russell is a golden boy and if he’s misbehaving on set, there’s no YouTube evidence to prove it. One almost wishes for such a scandal, if only to force Russell back towards the fringes.

While Wes Anderson has amassed only two Academy Award nominations in his career, he had his own I Heart Huckabees moment in 2004. His feature The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a huge studio failure, commercially and critically. But instead of second-guessing himself, Anderson doubled-down with two equally idiosyncratic, underperforming tiles: The Darjeeling Limited and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. When Anderson’s latest feature, Moonrise Kingdom, turned into a box office hit ($68 million worldwide), all that the film’s success meant for Anderson was that he could get next film financed ever sooner. His next feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looks as idiosyncratic as ever.

Anderson is naturally becoming more ambitious just from staying curious. He never imitates himself, just gets more specific. There are those who wish Anderson would do something different, which seems unfair, given the fact that no one had a similar request for Fassbinder or Hitchcock — or maybe critics did, and the auteurs simply ignored them.

Besides, David O. Russell should be a great example of the dangers of trying different things outside your authorial vision. Russell regrets Huckabees; the only thing Wes Anderson regrets is taking too much money from the studio for The Life Aquatic. Anderson loyalists are just as likely to watch Bottle Rocket as Moonrise Kingdom. Is there a single person who’s a fan of both Spanking the Monkey and American Hustle?

There is, of course, no crime in making entertainment for the masses. To hear David O. Russell tell it, he’s finally found his voice as a filmmaker. And there are plenty of audience members, Academy voters and critics to support this claim. At the end of the day, though, a filmmaker like Wes Anderson—loved and hated in equal measure—has six films in the Criterion Collection, that “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films.”

It’s quite easy to make the argument that Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and even I Heart Huckabees are important films. But what about American Hustle? And Silver Linings Playbook? And The Fighter? They are supreme hit films, Academy Award-caliber entertainments and even, to some, the best films of their respective years. But are they important? Who gets to decide? Well, we can sit and wait for Criterion to give their vote of confidence. Fair warning, though: you might be here awhile.

Ryan Sartor's humor writing has appeared in The Metric and is forthcoming from The Blue Hour Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Identity Theory, and indieWIRE, among other publications. In 2012, he graduated from Goddard College with an MFA in Creative Writing. Ryan was recently a visiting writer at Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. Follow him.