Eight movies will vie for Best Picture this Sunday and not one of them was directed by David O. Russell. Given recent Oscar history, this seems a little weird. For three of the last four years, a Russell film — whether it was 2010’s The Fighter, 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, or 2013’s American Hustle — has been up for the night’s top award. While none of those movies won Best Picture, they earned a total of 25 nominations. It’s more or less official: Right now, few make more tantalizing Oscar fare than this 56-year-old ex–community organizer who once called Lily Tomlin the c-word in a viral video.
To be clear, I am referring to the “Second” David O. Russell, a universally respected and benign Dr. Jekyll who dreams up prestige projects with A-list actors over texts at four in the morning. This is in adherence with the Two Russells Theory, which has become the predominant way of discussing Russell’s strange, storied, scattershot, and forever fascinating career.
The Two Russells Theory postulates that David O. Russell became a fundamentally different filmmaker after 2010, leaving the more difficult and less successful “First” Russell behind. That Russell made his name in the ’90s with neurotic screwball comedies about incest (1994’s Spanking the Monkey) and adoption (1996’s Flirting With Disaster). He entered the mainstream by reimagining Apocalypse Now as a Preston Sturges joint (1999’s Three Kings), and then he flamed out with a long-gestating passion project (2004’s I Heart Huckabees) in which so-called “existential detectives” try to prevent the kid from Rushmore from having violent sex in a mud pile with Isabelle Huppert. The fallout from Huckabees exiled Mr. Hyde for six years. Until Jekyll came along.
Russell is hardly the only director who began his career on the fringes before deciding to remake himself as a commercial filmmaker. You could argue that there are two John Singletons (pre- and post-Shaft) or two David Gordon Greens (pre– and post–Pineapple Express), to name just a couple of others who also originated in the ’90s underground. Other filmmakers (most notably Steven Soderbergh) move freely between their “indie” and “studio” sides as a matter of course. What makes Russell exceptional is the titanic shift in his career fortunes between his first and second iterations. In just a few short years, Russell went from pariah to industry favorite. This is nothing short of a resurrection.
But last week something strange occurred: The old, disenfranchised Russell returned. Nailed, a film that Russell began filming in 2008 and then abandoned two years later, after numerous production delays caused by shady financial backing, was released on VOD as Accidental Love. The bland new title suits the lobotomized product: Accidental Love is part rom-com, part political satire, and 100 percent DOA. It’s a film that justifies every fleck of dirt used to bury it. But as a lost snapshot of a reigning Hollywood king languishing at a not-so-distant nadir, Love also has a poignancy that sets it apart from most cinematic debacles.
“That was like, ‘How can it get much lower than getting divorced, having to put your kid in a special boarding school at a young age, and being broke and not knowing how to make a movie?’” Russell said of Accidental Love in an interview with Collider in 2014. “Well, it can get worse.”
This is the plot of Accidental Love, which plays about as well in the film as it does on paper: A roller-skating waitress from small-town Indiana (Jessica Biel) engaged to a caddish police officer with a bad mustache (James Marsden) is mistakenly shot in the head with a nail gun. She doesn’t have health insurance, so she travels to Washington, D.C. with an entourage of well-meaning weirdos (including Tracy Morgan and Kurt Fuller) to lobby a dopey junior representative (Jake Gyllenhaal) locked in battle with a Nancy Pelosi–like rival (Catherine Keener) who is pushing for the construction of a military base on the moon.
Biel and Gyllenhaal wind up falling for each other in the process of stumping for universal health care, though that might just be the nail messing with Biel’s bungled brain. It’s never totally clear whether Accidental Love is meant to be a romantic story about kooky lovers or a horror movie about a woman slowly losing her mind.
Russell disowned Nailed after it was completed without him.1 It’s impossible to know for sure how Russell’s Nailed might’ve digressed from Accidental Love, though you can make some educated guesses. Accidental Love’s score is devoid of the classic-rock songs that Russell typically leans on to provide an ironic counterpoint to his storytelling. (Think Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” in Three Kings or Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” in American Hustle.) There’s also an overreliance on hacky sound effects to sell out-of-date insurance jokes. I’d like to think that Russell wouldn’t have felt the need to deploy tired needle-scratch accents to underline the satire.
The credited director is “Stephen Greene,” because Alan Smithee apparently had even worse films to take the blame for.
The meddling is intrusive, but it can’t fully conceal the David O. Russell film buried and struggling for breath underneath. Russell makes movies about families — some bound by birth (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), others by circumstance (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and American Hustle). But they’re always loud, frayed, self-destructive, and yet somehow functional units. As is customary in Russell’s universe, Accidental Love’s cadre of damaged eccentrics set aside their differences to pursue a higher ideal. And they must accomplish the task in spite of some truly terrible hairstyles. (Keener’s shock of power follicles in Accidental Love is practically a rough draft for Melissa Leo’s Wolverine bouffant in The Fighter.)
I sort of hated Accidental Love, but as a longtime fan of Russell’s movies I was glad to finally see it. It’s not an official Russell film, more like a missing link fleshing out an evolutionary process that commenced long before his career bottomed out. Now that it’s released, Accidental Love can take its proper place as the nexus of Russell’s filmography, a movie you could sense in his subsequent work long before you could actually see the movie itself.
Proponents of the Two Russells Theory generally fall into two camps. The first camp believes that Russell now makes “safe” films that pale next to his “daring” work of the ’90s and early ’00s. You can find this take on Russell in even some favorable assessments of his work. “His most recent … films feature muted palettes, claustrophobic mise en scene, and a straightforward storytelling approach,” Slate’s Seth Stevenson wrote in 2012. “The kaleidoscopic experimentation of his earlier work has vanished, replaced by a far more mainstream-friendly caution.” Words like “straightforward” and “caution” might not be inherently negative, but they’re not exactly complimentary either.
Let me state for the record that I’m a fan of both Russells. I loved The Fighter. I liked Silver Linings Playbook. I feel a different way about American Hustle each time I see it (I’m on three viewings and counting), but I’m comfortable recommending it with only a handful of caveats. I don’t consider “straightforward” to be an epithet as it applies to late-period Russell. But if I’m picking just one movie to go in the David O. Russell section of my personal canon, I choose the apotheosis of “First” Russell, I Heart Huckabees.
Contrary to the film’s checkered reputation, you don’t have to slap yourself repeatedly in the face with a rubber ball to believe that Huckabees is Russell’s best, or at least most singular, film. Time has been kind to Huckabees: Eleven years after its release, the film’s questing spirit seems openhearted and inviting rather than indulgent and perverse. As the long-awaited follow-up to Three Kings, Huckabees was set up to fail in 2004. But now that it’s the outsider-art prequel to the overtly mainstream films Russell went on to make, Huckabees plays as a charming experiment. It’s the sort of stubborn oddball that Russell’s later movies have conditioned us to root for. Embrace Huckabees and the movie suddenly blooms; dismiss the film out of hand and it rapidly shrinks.
Part of loving Huckabees is wishing it had been treated more kindly in its time. Russell was done in by bad prerelease publicity regarding the loopy story (which he later admitted reworking in four different scripts, and then tinkering with again on the fly with his bewildered cast during the shoot) and his even zanier filmmaking methods. Anybody who cares has already seen the video in which an unhinged Russell calls Lily Tomlin one of the worst things you could ever call Lily Tomlin or any other woman. But Huckabees predated YouTube — the average person had to rely initially on Sharon Waxman’s account of the incident in the New York Times.
Revisiting the profile, enticingly titled “The Nudist Buddhist Borderline-Abusive Love-In,” it seems clear that Waxman’s intent was to depict Russell as a total loon. But if Waxman penned a hatchet job, Russell sculpted the handle, attached the blade, and handed over the weapon on a velvet pillow. It is inconceivable that (1) Russell acted as he did while making Huckabees, and (2) that he allowed a reporter from the paper of record to witness it. The Tomlin video is one thing, but this anecdote is something else:
The actors look tired. As he has throughout the shoot, Mr. Russell is touching them — a lot, and sometimes in private places. At one point, Mr. Wahlberg grabs the director’s megaphone, shouting: “This man just grabbed my genitals! It is my first man-on-man contact!” At other times, the director whispers into the actresses’ ears — lewdly, they later say — before a take.
No matter how this behavior was received on the set — “He is fascinating, completely brilliant, intelligent and very annoying sometimes, too,” Huppert told Waxman with diplomatic gentleness — it comes off in the story as borderline lecherous. Russell was humiliated in the article’s aftermath, but it was just the beginning of a painful estrangement from Hollywood relevancy.
In conjunction with his current preoccupation with discarded dreamers who get a second chance to redeem themselves, Russell has recast the wilderness period of Huckabees and Accidental Love as the starting point of his own reinvention narrative. As he related to the Times nine years later, “I was very humbled. But that was good.”
This is David O. Russell’s own version of the Two Russells Theory — this camp asserts that Second Russell is a more emotional and mature filmmaker than First Russell.
“If I didn’t go stumbling through that period of my life, I would never have become the humbled person who could look in the eyes of the real people in The Fighter,” he told Collider. “The Fighter was a film I wouldn’t have made. I would have said, ‘It’s a story that’s been told. I don’t get it.’ But, there was a lot of story there.”
What story did Russell see in The Fighter? Could it be an allegory about who he was and who he wanted to become? In the film, Mark Wahlberg’s aspiring boxing champion has to contend with a brother, played by Christian Bale, whom he loves but whose impulsivity and bad reputation threaten to drag Wahlberg down. Bale used to be the favorite son of his hometown, but he has derailed his life and eventually winds up in prison, just as Russell was stuck in professional purgatory. While in the joint, Bale is embarrassed when a documentary detailing his past as a crack addict is screened for his fellow inmates, like Russell was stigmatized when footage of his low point with Tomlin was finally posted online.
Wahlberg is faced with a tough choice in The Fighter: Does he move forward without his brother, or can he find a way to ferret out the good parts of his background and ditch the rest? Similarly, Bale must decide whether he can set aside his own dreams for a comeback so that his brother can have a shot at glory, even if it means the “second” boxer overshadows the first. The triumphant ending that Russell delivered in The Fighter was surely the resolution he hoped the film would (and ultimately did) achieve in his own life.
Those inclined to look down on Second Russell–era films typically single out Silver Linings Playbook for derision. This is not surprising: It is a conventional romantic comedy that appears to suggest that the love of Jennifer Lawrence can cure mental illness. But to dismiss Silver Linings Playbook as only pandering would be wrong — it might be the most commercial of Russell’s films, but it’s also arguably the most personal. Russell wrote the script before he made The Fighter, drawing on his experience raising a child with bipolar disorder. As for the dubious potency of J-Law’s healing powers, Russell only had to look at his own life. Lawrence was his Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As a teenager she had loved I Heart Huckabees. She got him.
“He doesn’t have a filter,” Lawrence gushed in a 2013 Hollywood Reporter profile of Russell. “I don’t know how to say somebody is a maniac, but you love it.”
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In Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence’s character is drawn to Bradley Cooper for similar reasons. “You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things,” she says to Cooper shortly after meeting him. With Lawrence’s support, Cooper is able to overcome the damage done to his life (including a lost marriage and a ruined career) in the wake of a violent outburst. (“One incident can change a lifetime,” Cooper’s court-ordered therapist intones at one point.) Cooper’s cathartic moment comes when he’s able to successfully pull off a flashy, climactic crowd-pleasing dance number unlike anything he’s ever done before, and Russell as the director is pulling it off right along with him.
Upon the release of American Hustle, Russell took to grouping his three most recent films into what I’ll classify as a “romance” trilogy. “When I came back to making movies, I knew that the romance was essential,” he told Collider. “I love the love.” It’s obvious that Russell is in love with filmmaking in American Hustle, but thematically the movie is ambivalent about the idealism of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. American Hustle is a film about survival, which in Russell’s view requires hiding who you really are, even from yourself — it’s hardly a “romantic” message.
It’s possible (if you’re a hardcore Two Russells conspiracy theorist) to read the film, Room 237–style, as Russell’s capitulation to the “fake shit” in his own “second” career, though I’m more sympathetic to Russell than that. My view on American Hustle and Russell’s work in general is more in line with the philosophy espoused by Irving, the conniving combed-over huckster played by Bale. “That’s the way the world works,” he says while contemplating a fake van Gogh hanging in a museum. “Not black-and-white, like you were saying. It’s extremely gray.” The Two Russells Theory is a black-and-white view of Russell’s filmography, but there’s plenty of gray in his movies, too, no matter which Russell we’re talking about.
If there’s a hole in the theory, it’s in the shape of Three Kings. It’s the “First” Russell movie that’s most like a “Second” Russell movie. Three Kings has big stars, a good soundtrack, and a hopeful ending. The action scenes are thoughtful — he accounts for the damage done by every bullet — but Russell is also getting off on all the heavy weaponry. When George Clooney, Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze rob the Iraqis of their gold stockpile, Russell imagines the Beach Boys as the second coming of Wagner.
In retrospect, Three Kings feels like a movie that could’ve easily been followed by a picture like The Fighter had fate not pointed Russell on a decadelong detour. On the other hand, Three Kings is still adequately thorny to qualify as First Russell, and not just because it was haunted by poisonous gossip about Russell physically tussling on the set with Clooney.
Three Kings is the shared piece for two other trilogies — Russell’s “cynical” early movies (Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster) and the “ideas” films (I Heart Huckabees and Accidental Love) of his middle period. Spanking the Monkey is the caustic antifamily flip side of movies like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, featuring an introspective Gen X archetype played by Jeremy Davies who is hounded by his asshole father, his asshole mother, and his raging asshole buddies. (“We don’t think you’re stupid. We think you’re a pussy” is Russell’s pointed take on male-bonding patter.)
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Spanking the Monkey is Russell’s most repellent film by a wide margin. I mean “repellent” in the best possible way — I can never avert my eyes from it even as the movie bunches up my stomach in knots. Russell is fearless about exploiting the erotic magnetism of the mother, who in spite of convalescing after a compound leg fracture still manages to hold her shapely limb in a come-hither, Mrs. Robinson–style arch for much of the film. But you’re mostly cheering for Davies to escape the clutches of these wretched individuals. When his aunt says, “Family is our greatest asset, you’ll find that out as you get older,” it’s meant to be ironic, though it proved to be prescient for Russell’s later films.
Flirting With Disaster, in my view, is Russell’s weakest film. (Not counting Accidental Love, of course.) It waters down the maverick queasiness of Spanking the Monkey in what proved to be a pioneering example of the “Let’s discomfort Ben Stiller” comedic subgenre. What remains from Spanking the Monkey is the depiction of family as the source of life’s unhappiness — no matter who Stiller mistakenly believes are his birth parents, he always seems to be better off alone.
By comparison, Three Kings is an exponentially more ambitious film: Russell goes beyond questioning the way that parents stifle their children to exploring how American racism perverted Michael Jackson’s face. For this reason, Three Kings also fits with I Heart Huckabees (his “philosophy” film) and Accidental Love (his “antigovernment” film) in Russell’s “ideas�� trilogy. Just as Kings culminated his first two movies, it also set Russell up for the exasperation of his next two projects. Russell was driven to contemplate the big questions — who are we? Why can’t we take care of each other? — until they nearly drove him insane.
“I had overthought certain films so much that I walked away from a couple of them,” Russell concluded to the Times in 2013. “When I made The Fighter, I said to myself, ‘Mr. Overthinking Things, how about really, really just do it as good as you can from your heart. Can you do that? Well, actually just try to do that. That would be an achievement.’”
Russell put Mr. Overthinking Things on ice and hasn’t looked back. His next film is Joy, a biopic about the inventor of the Miracle Mop starring Lawrence. It’s interesting to ponder how First Russell might’ve approached the material — perhaps as an anticonsumerism screed with an undercurrent of deep sexual dysfunction that’s equal parts hilarious and off-putting. As a Second Russell film, however, it seems all too easy to predict what Joy will be like. The characters will be strange but not too strange, the storytelling will have loads of “heart,” and the wigs will be fantastic.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive. I look forward to seeing Joy just as I do all of Russell’s films. Joy will be released in December, right in the thick of the next Oscar season. Unless it’s a total disaster — Russell has worked hard to remove those sorts of doubts — Joy will likely be in the awards race simply by virtue of having been directed by David O. Russell. His work has become standardized in that regard. He’s like a guitarist who plays the same solos every night. He’s taken to polishing his imperfections; let poor Stephen Greene take the credit for Accidental Love. Russell’s specialty now is making anti-Huckabees movies. Russell operates as an artist who believes that if he loves love hard enough, love will love him back.