Apart from “Three Kings,” his idiosyncratic, crazily prescient 1999 take on Middle East adventurism, David O. Russell made his bones by anatomizing the dysfunctional American family.
From 1994’s “Spanking the Monkey,” in which summer vacation leads a tortured student straight into his mom’s bed, to the magical healing of a broken son and husband in current kudos favorite “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell has concocted a potent alchemy. Applying the sociological insights of an Arthur Miller to the wacky relationships you might find in a Chris Durang farce, he holds up a funhouse mirror to the ways we live at home now.
Russell’s cinematic playbook is unabashedly fundamental. “You have to feel as if it’s a privilege to do, which is what I feel about ‘The Fighter’ or ‘Silver Linings,'” he says. “Also, you have to make it as personal and authentic as you can.”
Nothing is more important to Russell than craftsmanship. “It’s not easy to make a film that’s original or emotional and also works narratively. When people do something that’s just kind of interesting — or even brilliant — and it doesn’t show the craft, that to me is using the fig leaf of something called ‘art’ to hide the fact that you didn’t do your job.” (He refreshingly concedes he was that guy on 2004’s “I Heart Huckabees”: “I could have made that film register more emotionally than I was able to do at that time.”)
Emotional resonance hasn’t been a problem since, with the poignant “Fighter” garnering two Oscars and the even more sincere “Playbook” in the running to equal or top that haul. Still, he says, “There’s always a danger of glibness, of laziness. That’s why I think this idea of craft will always carry the day. You always have to be willing to turn around and ask, ‘Does this stink?'”