No matter what you thought of American Hustle — opinions are greatly divided on that one — I think we could all come to a quiet agreement that David O. Russell is not the same filmmaker he used to be. I will cop to being in the camp that found Hustle a bit boring, really. It contained lingering traces of the trademark Russell neurotic eccentricity, of course. But mostly those items found their embodiment in the hairstyles of the male leads, Bradley Cooper wandering around in those ridiculous curlers and Christian Bale with his anachronistic hairspray. As I was watching, I kept thinking that there had to be some irony in the fact that the most recognizable Russellian factors were, quite explicitly, located in the cosmetic.
I became a fan of Russell’s when Flirting With Disaster, his 1996 comedy starring Ben Stiller, came out. It looks like a small movie, but it really isn’t. The plot follows a man looking for his biological parents, and there are filmmakers who would make a pretty maudlin hash of its plot. But pretty early in the game you’re in a sort of zany clown-car odyssey across America, minus any clowns with the self-awareness to actually call themselves by that name. Immortal moments in the film include Mary Tyler Moore lifting up her shirt and giving her very best salesman’s pitch on the magnificence of her breasts, whose gravity-defiance she attributes to a great bra.
Like all early Russell movies, Flirting With Disaster is secretly a caper movie wrapped into some other subject. In Spanking the Monkey, his debut, the protagonist is scrambling for a way to relax (and ends up hitting an incest speed bump along the way). In Three Kings, the grander subject is war, but the plot engine is a heist that morphs into an allegory about the nature of American wars in the Middle East. In I Heart Huckabees, it’s… OK, years after seeing it I’m still puzzling out just what I Heart Huckabees was about. I mean, other than capitalism and existentialism. And Naomi Watts’ stained mouth.
But since about 2010’s The Fighter, Russell seems to have been engaged in another project. And if this were 30 Rock, I’d call that project his quest for an EGOT. If anything, Russell seems lately to be afraid of offending people, and I have (ungenerously, speculatively) concluded that it might be that he longs for mainstream celebration. Admittedly, The Fighter was the strongest evidence of that; it barely felt like it had been made by a man with as… unique a sensibility as Russell’s. It was so straightforward: here is a boxer, here is his junkie brother, here is their failure, the end. Russell was working from someone else’s screenplay, which is probably a good chunk of the explanation. But the acclaim The Fighter got, its awards and rave reviews, seem to have given him a hunger for its wider audience.
After that, after all, came Silver Linings Playbook, where Russell returned to his familiar abrasiveness. But depression and mental illness, as subjects, blunted his edge. That’s why it was possible to market the movie as a big, Oscar-aspirant feel-good film. An earlier Russell would have been too difficult and lacerating for the larger movie-going public to swallow. But in Playbook he could deliver the holy grail of the Oscar film: a moment of emotional redemption for his awkward misfits. A love story. All the things that Academy members eat up, and if there was a tiny razor blade in the sugar pill it was well-concealed.
American Hustle, I think, was something else again. Everything about it is sharp, but so chiseled that it’s hard to find much emotional weight in the result. Russell characters used to delight me because they were unpredictable, but something about the eccentricities of Irving Rosenthal and company let me nail them from the get-go; there was no surprise, no delight. No mess. And it’s exactly the polish that makes the film such a Russell oddity. When he first burst out of the gate, it was his emotional untidiness that made him interesting. But now he’s got that all cleaned up, hidden behind the hairspray. And I, for one, miss the older version.