There are no modern American filmmakers quite like David O. Russell, whose new film, the Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook, hits New Zealand cinemas this week.
The new release is his sixth film, and further solidifies his standing as one of the great directors of actors (it's the first film to receive Oscar nominations in all four acting categories in over thirty years) and one of the most iconoclastic auteurs working today.
I first discovered Russell when I saw his second feature, the criminally underrated 1996 comedy Flirting With Disaster, starring a pre-There's Something About Mary Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette. Stiller plays a new father who decides to track down his own birth parents with the help of a bombshell social worker played by Tea Leoni (Spanglish).
Amongst the indie film glut of the late '90s, the somewhat Woody Allen-derived Flirting With Disaster didn't really make much of an impact. But time has been very kind to the film, and every time I watch it it seems to get funnier and more awesome. I now consider it to be one of the great comedies of the last twenty years, and I strongly urge you to seek it out if you've never seen it.
My love for Flirting With Disaster lead me to Russell's first feature film, the controversial indie breakout hit, Spanking The Monkey, which told the charming tale of a young man who struggles with guilt after having sex with his mother.
It's worth seeking out too, and with its focus on Freudian self-regard and philosophical openness functions effectively as a mission statement for Russell's impending ouvre.
Following Flirting With Disaster, Russell made the film for which he was best known for many years, the Iraq War-set black action comedy Three Kings which took many by surprise with its dark political subtext.
He brought the spirit of protest films like M*A*S*H and Catch-22 into the modern era and made a kick-ass action movie while doing so.
The film's rep was tarnished though when a story emerged that an altercation between Russell and star George Clooney got physical.
The idea of Russell as a fiery and cantankarous director gained steam when a hilarious video of him freaking out at his lead actors leaked following the release of his follow-up to Three Kings, the amazing and hilarious existential comedy I Heart Huckabees.
Russell may well indeed be a bastard to work with, but hot damn he makes great movies, and there's always at least three or four revelatory performances in his films - he's directed no less than seven actors to Oscar nominations.
I Heart Huckabees was the first (and only maybe) time I found Mark Wahlberg to be funny.
Wahlberg and Russell re-teamed for 2010's The Fighter, which garnered Christian Bale and Melissa Leo Academy Award wins, and was nominated for plenty more. Wahlberg was originally slated to play the lead in Silver Linings Playbook, but apparently had a falling out with Russell when the director decided to cast Bradley Cooper instead.
On paper, Russell's films mostly seem pretty disparate. But their common denominator is that rarest of things in modern American cinema - an authentic sense of character and emotion not derived from high concept ridiculosity or ironic distancing.
Surprising, genuine and hilarious character moments shine through in all his movies. It's not expecting a lot to ask for such things in contemporary dramas and comedies, but Russell's one of the few American directors who can be relied upon to bring these kinds of elements.
The rough 'n' raw character dynamics in his movies are a wonderful antedote to the staid formality of many American films.
If that means he's an ass to work with, so be it. I'm going to generously ascribe his tempestuous on-set manner to an artistic commitment to authentic emotions and performances.
The Fighter may have been sold as a boxing drama, but it's strongest moments all involved scenes of familial strife that rung hilariously true.
Silver Linings Playbook builds on this sort of thing with its dense portrait of a family that can't stop screaming at each other. Many American writer/directors used to specialise in this kind of unadorned and relatable drama, but not so much these days, Silver Linings Playbook feels like a breath of fresh air for it.
And as Cooper's sports gambling-obsessed father, Robert De Niro - who has long since descended into a caricature of himself - is freaking great. He hasn't been this funny since Midnight Run. I credit Russell.
There currently exists a 'lost' Russell film called Nailed that sounds pretty mental, but I would still like to see it.
For now though, Silver Linings Playbook is filling my cup with joy, and it's very satisfying to see Russell receiving superlative praise for it. Be sure and catch it.
And Flirting With Disaster too, it really is that freaking great.
Fan of David O. Russell? Amped for Silver Linings Playbook? What other modern directors would you put up there with him? Comment below!