From the Vaults: It’s All in the Family With David O. Russell

Family dysfunction looms large in the films of David O. Russell

"Silver Linings Playbook"

In her Chronicle review of Silver Linings Playbook, which opens today in Austin, Kimberley Jones argues that writer/director David O. Russell is “in his element here …. The family in crisis and true-to-life cultural/geographical texture have been ongoing considerations of his.”

Looking back through the years at The Austin Chronicle’s reviews of Russell’s films – from 1994’s Spanking the Monkey to the just-released Silver Linings Playbook – it’s clear that family dysfunction has always been a dominant theme in his work. Also evident is that Russell’s family fracases have broad appeal. His first feature, Spanking the Monkey, which depicts a college freshman’s dalliances with masturbation and consensual incest with his mother, won the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. Russell’s latest, Silver Linings Playbook, took the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International FIlm Festival this past September, and the Audience Award the next month at the Austin Film Festival. In my review of Spanking the Monkey, I wrote: “For a movie with such a lurid title and taboo subject matter, Spanking the Monkey is a remarkably comfortable and appealing movie.”

Russell followed the taboo-busting debut with the hilarious comedy, Flirting With Disaster in which a grown man immaturely puts his life on hold until he can find his biological parents. In his review, Steve Davis wrote: “Taking the concept of the dysfunctional family to a degree that might even boggle Leo Tolstoy's mind, Flirting With Disaster is every son or daughter's nightmare … multiplied.”

The next couple of films by Russell deal less directly with biological families and, instead, takes up the issues of infighting among acquired family groups. 1999’s Three Kings is a story about three rogue American soldiers in Iraq, whose ultimate act of sedition is, arguably, a brave act of heroism. Yet it takes a while for these men to get their moral compasses all pointing in the same direction. That’s the internecine struggle on display in this war/caper/action movie. Next comes I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s odd comedy in which the story’s central tension derives from the conflict between warring philosophers. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play a pair of existential detectives in conflict with their former protégé – a woman played by Isabelle Huppert.

Writing about 2010’s The Fighter, I described it as "a drama about self-delusions, inner strength, and the family as a paradoxical source of conflict and sustenance. And, in a way, it’s also a story about Lowell, Mass., a mill town that was once a beacon of American industry and then left to decay among the detritus of our post-Industrial Age.” The film was acknowledged with Oscars for stars Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as two of the key sparring partners in this pugilistic family.

We can't wait to see where Russell touches down next.

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David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster, Spanking the Monkey

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