David O. Russell has a certain reputation for being, to put it lightly, hard to work with. From leaked YouTube videos to some less-than-kind interviews from people he has worked with, Russell’s unconventional directing techniques have been criticized for years.
While his negative attitude has put a dent in reputation, Russell continues to wow critics and audiences with each new release. Even if his most recent release signified a dip in quality, Russell continues to be the a serious threat during awards season. Two of his films managed to pick up Oscar nominations in all four acting categories.
In addition, Jennifer Lawrence and Christian Bale both have Russell to thank for their Oscar victories. Basically, he might be terrifying behind the camera, but he has a knack for delivering quality movies. Whether his on-set antics are forgivable is up for debate, but that’s not the point of this list.
The point is to highlight the director’s greatest achievements. Similar to most acclaimed director’s, Russell’s movies are all relatively close in quality. Because of this, most of the movies were almost too close to call. It’s hard to come up with a general consensus when most of the movies hover around the same level of quality.
With that being said, readers shouldn’t be too terribly concerned if their favorite movie is in third or fourth place. The lower rankings are hardly failures. In fact, due to the exclusion of Accidental Love (as a result or Russell leaving the project), each movie on this list earns a thumbs up from this particular Taste or Cinema contributor.
8. I Heart Huckabees
I Heart Huckabees is so weird that it’s borderline pretentious. Now listen, pretentious isn’t a word that film critics like to use. Like “overrated,” it’s a word that’s a bit too vague for its own good. Almost any movie that tries to do something different could be labeled as pretentious. Unfortunately, there’s really no other way to define Russell’s existential journey into the mind of a young environmentalist.
The movie attempts to deal with big ideas only to scratch the surface. Thanks to an unfocused script and an overambitious premise, I Heart Huckabees is only intermittently intelligent. It’s certainly original, but originality doesn’t automatically lead to success. Sadly, not every movie can reach the heights The Tree of Life or Synecdoche, New York.
It’s not a thought-provoking deconstruction of the human mind like it wants to be, but it’s certainly funny. Jason Schwartzman cranks the charm up to eleven, while Mark Wahlberg once again proves that he and Russell are a match made in heaven. These two talented dude spout out some seriously memorable quotes that stick with the viewer far more than any of the intended motifs. Still, you can’t help but feel as if they’re just as confused as the rest of us.
Viewers may make the case that the movie is way over everyone’s head, but that’s not exactly true. I Heart Huckabees isn’t flawed solely because it’s hard to follow. It’s flawed because it’s so smug about its intelligence that it forgets to tell an interesting story. Though it’s saved by the comedy, I Heart Huckabees is still the weakest film in Russell’s career. Call it misunderstood, but I’ll just call it self-indulgent.
7. Spanking the Monkey
As far as directorial debuts go, you could do a lot worse than Spanking the Monkey. Filmed on a shoestring budget, this movie feels a bit too much like your average debut. It’s more experimental and less flashy than later projects, but the experimentation (mostly) works in the film’s favor. Russell novices who were introduced to him through his more popular movies may find Spanking the Monkey a bit jarring, but close examination reveals a movie that’s still obviously from his gifted mind.
What does that mean? It means that you’ll still find unusual characters and great acting to be the primary purpose while story takes a backseat. The twisted characters do all the heavy lifting while the plot merely floats along. It’s never bad, but it hits several slow points that give viewers just enough time to reflect on the noticeable flaws. The controversial subject matter and unusual filmmaking choices make for an interesting watch, but it’s hard not to wish for something a little smarter.
Early pundits had Joy pegged as an Oscar frontrunner. Russell’s attachment to the project, along with strong trailers and an even stronger cast, assured most journalists and bloggers that this would be the movie to beat. Ultimately, Joy landed with a thud. As usual, Lawrence was praised, but Russell’s lackluster script and straightforward approach left a lot to be desired. In hindsight, people should have predicted that a wonder mop themed biopic would be dull and formulaic.
At the time, it was hard to predict that Russell was capable of dropping the ball. After three Best Director nominations in a row and two films that picked up a nomination in every acting category, it was easy to assume that everything this director touched would turn to gold. He could have announced a biopic based on a suburban Home Depot employee named Tom and people would have called it a surefire smash hit.
Joy was simply too tame to compete with the likes of Max Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and The Big Short. It lacked the usual David O Russell charm, and it fell flat as a result.
The good news is that Joy might not be as bad as you’ve heard. Jennifer Lawrence is as lovable as usual, and the story is certainly more interesting than it could have been. It’s just not interesting enough. After the hyperactive dose of sugar named American Hustle, Joy felt like something of letdown. It’s a definite step in the wrong direction, but it’s more of a misstep than a sign of what’s to come.
5. Flirting With Disaster
Following solid reviews from his $200,000 debut, Russell was given a beefed up budget to direct an equally quirky black comedy with a killer cast and a wacky premise.
Recruiting the likes of Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, and Josh Brolin (to name a few), Russell managed to prove early on that he can handle actors like nobody else. If leaked videos are any indication, it seems as Russell didn’t exactly allow for error. Regardless of the reasoning, Flirting with Disaster was the first true showing of Russell’s directing talent.
When it comes to Russell’s more comedic efforts, the story is usually a low priority. Instead, these movies tend to focus on characters. Flirting With Disaster is no exception. We’re given a scatterbrained plot that manages to go mostly unnoticed due to the cast of hilarious screwballs.
The movie is completely overstuffed, but it doesn’t really matter when it’s so capable of making viewers laugh. From questionably gay couples to big rig driving lessons, there’s never a dull moment. Mixed in with laugh-out-loud character interactions between the stellar cast members, Flirting With Disaster is too riotous to fault.
Though the performances are all terrific, they’re not quite Oscar worthy. This is an early Russell movie, so viewers have yet to witness something on par with Amy Adams in American Hustle or Christian Bale in The Fighter. Still, an overabundance of good performances is hardly an issue, even if there aren’t any award-calibre performances.
The cast, along with the unabashed weirdness of everything, is what makes Flirting With Disaster essential viewing for Russell fans. It’s not perfect, but it’s never boring.