Notes on David O. Russell

by Dan Sallitt

From The Film Comedy Reader, published by Limelight Editions in Feb. 2002.

1) One encounters immediately in David O. Russell’s films his desire to affront, to transgress, to violate social standards of gentility.  This inclination begins with the plots: Spanking the Monkey (1994) revolves around the central plot device of incest, and beyond this surprises us with its unsettling genuine dislike of the parents; Flirting with Disaster (1996) similarly pushes generation-gap humor too far and ends up calling the parent-child bond into question; the story of Three Kings (1999) is built on an uncomfortable vision of bloody chaos caused by U.S. intervention in the Gulf War.  Along the way, Russell crosses as many boundaries as he can: sexual (the oddly matter-of-fact depiction of masturbation in Monkey; Ben Stiller's erection, and the licking of Patricia Arquette's armpit, in Disaster), political (Stiller's discomfiture at the Reaganism of the San Diegans in Disaster; hundreds of anti-American salvos in Three Kings, culminating in the U.S. Army playing the mustache-twirling villain as Mark Wahlberg nearly dies of suffocation), familial (Arquette playfully using her baby as a sexual prop in Disaster, the montage of parental sex at the end of the same film), racial (Stiller being fingered as a Jew by his Michigan parents in Disaster; Spike Jonze’s institutionalized anti-Arab patter in Three Kings being censored whenever it veers toward anti-black sentiments), hygienic (introducing the mother [Alberta Watson] with a bedpan in Monkey; illustrating battlefield injuries with frightening simulations of internal organ damage in Three Kings).  Many other instances of transgression are thrown away and non-diegetic: the infidelities of the father (Benjamin Hendrickson) in Monkey aren't referenced in the dialogue and don't affect the plot; the mother's destructively selfish reaction to Jeremy Davies' acceptance to the medical program in the same film is abandoned after she acclimates; American soldiers casually overpower untrained Iraqi troops, turning action scenes into satire in Three Kings.

2) As implied above, Russell has a penchant for tipping characterizations toward malevolence and selfishness.  Each parent in Monkey is a monster; parental evil is softened by the comic conventions of Disaster, but Mary Tyler Moore's edginess often becomes harsh and hostile, and Russell enjoys evolving Alan Alda's character toward sociopathy.  Minor characters are often frightening in their hatefulness (the pack of friends in Monkey, the bed-and-breakfast hostess in Disaster; the soldiers fraternizing over a dying enemy at the opening of Three Kings); at times Russell perhaps shades into condescension when he directs too much bile toward a minor character (the lady on the bus at the beginning of Monkey, Aunt Helen in the same film).  Most strikingly, even the protagonists often veer into unsavory behavior, while remaining our identification figures: Davies' treatment of the neighbor girl (Carla Gallo) in Monkey is often casually contemptuous, and his careerism is expressed bluntly; the dishonesty and sexual opportunism of Stiller (and, occasionally, Arquette) in Disaster goes a bit beyond genre expectations; the outlaw soldiers of Three Kings look on passively at a number of atrocities before the plot moves them to protest.

3) Russell’s distaste for political correctness is sometimes extreme enough to be edgy.  The psychology-based ideology of the neighbor girl in Monkey is presented as a tool for victimizing others; Russell turns Tea Leoni’s counselor in Disaster into a psychobabbling clown, and, deviating a bit further from convention, depicts Lonnie (Glenn Fitzgerald), the product of Alda and Lily Tomlin’s liberal parenting, as a vicious hysteric.

4) As a balance to the above tendencies in Russell’s films, his taste for transgression is generally presented in a mundane context and counterpointed with humanizing psychological detail.  The mother makes a convincing feint at discretion in Monkey before giving Davies the unsettling news that his father didn't want children; Davies' interest in the neighbor girl in Monkey is revealed through two point-of-view closeups, one of her childlike red sneakers, the other of her breasts; Moore is introduced showing us her bra in Disaster, all the while hectoring Arquette about the importance of wearing the right bra size.

5) The monstrous behavior in Russell's films is likewise scaled down with psychological detail and placed in a mundane context.  The father's awareness of his role as family villain in Monkey is presented with a nonchalance that is both grotesque and psychologically persuasive; the mother in the same film makes a token, half-hearted attempt to stop Davies from badmouthing his dad before she joins in; Alda and Tomlin’s behavior during their flight from the law at the end of Disaster combines callousness and vague humanitarian gestures, the latter always abandoned without much struggle.  Central to the impact of Monkey is the way that Davies is shown, in persuasive detail over the course of several scenes, to collaborate with his mother's attempt to seduce him, his teenage lust subtly vanquishing judgment and taste.  (Russell is one of the few American directors to be convincing in depicting characters in intellectual pursuits: the mother editing Davies' paper in Monkey, the preppie hoodlums in the same film posing math problems to Davies.)

6) Another way that Russell balances the depiction of malevolent and grotesque behavior is to juxtapose it with moments of undisguised empathy.  The mother's depression in Monkey is depicted with an early, startling close-up of her crying without provocation, though her controlling nature shows through as soon as she becomes verbal; Leoni is dismissed as a lunatic through Disaster but gets the summarizing line of wisdom at the end ("Every marriage is vulnerable--otherwise marriage wouldn't mean anything, would it?"); the Iraqi who tortures Wahlberg in Three Kings is not only given the more cogent political arguments, but also makes a precarious emotional connection with his victim.

7) Psychological observation sometimes shades into appealingly abstract dialogue: the father's bizarre, complicated instructions to Davies to use the father as a scapegoat to manipulate the mother ("What do I know, the hell with me, etc."); Davies on career choices in Monkey ("I wrote about children with AIDS" "Why?" "Because people say that's where the future is"); the father's hilarious attempt to calm his officemates as he hears on the phone about his wife and son's incestuous relationship ("It's just a little family matter"); Moore’s reply to being asked not to smoke in front of her infant granddaughter ("Whatever happened to the Constitution in this country?"); the establishing absurdism of Wahlberg’s post-cease-fire encounter with an enemy soldier at the opening of Three Kings (“Are we shooting?” “What?” “Are we shooting people or what?”).

8) Russell always builds his stories and stages his gags using established entertainment conventions.  Monkey can be seen as using a familiar comic structure, that of a character whose life goes wrong in every way: in this case, from the dog interrupting his masturbation to his friends habitually beating him up to his mother trying to sleep with him.  Russell transforms this conventional framework by pushing all the plot elements toward extremes instead of toward resolution: unhappiness, capped by incest, leads to poverty and attempted suicide, resolved only by Five Easy Pieces-style existential flight.  Disaster goes further, and sometimes with mixed success, into comic convention: Stiller and Arquette are a sitcom couple tangling their relationship in a string of lies and losing all perspective with each new story twist.  The plot has an old-Hollywood symmetry, as the couple works their way through three outrageously different, caricatured sets of birth parents.  Three Kings suffers the most from Hollywood conventions, with its mandatory enlisting of the protagonists in a sentimental moral stand, and its manipulation of our sympathies for the helpless Iraqi refugees; but its stronger scenes are also built around well-worn war-film riffs (the cynical soldiers whose horizons are broadened; the small unit making a foray into enemy territory; breaking into the enemy stronghold to rescue a comrade).

9) Russell's most exciting moments are three-layered: a familiar narrative or comic convention is exaggerated into a transgressive act, then grounded with a flurry of humanizing psychological detail: Davies telling the father about his incest in Monkey (old-fashioned melodramatic confession heightened by the discomfort of the incest, counterpointed with the father never being fully distracted from the business situation in his office); Alda and Tomlin's flight in Disaster (cheese-it-the-cops comedy paired with the outrage of the near death of the policeman [Richard Jenkins] and Alda's callous reaction to it, fleshed out with the couple's bickering and Tomlin's half-hearted compassionate gestures and reflexive stabs at parenting); an imprisioned Wahlberg finding a stash of cell phones and calling his wife in Detroit in Three Kings (the familiar escape from enemy headquarters, effected via the technological loot from a prosperity war and couched in inane domestic chit-chat).  Disaster's reliance on comic convention is both its weakness and its strength, leading Russell to the edge of genre cliche but imparting a narrative momentum that caps the film with a barrage of dazzling multilayered scenes, one of them (the parental sex sequence* ) after the credits start rolling.

10) As Russell’s budgets grow, his films show an increasing flair for art direction.  Kevin Thompson’s production design for the different birth parent houses in Disaster is brilliantly satirical, especially the San Diego location; even more impressive are the crazy-quilt bunkers of the Iraqi command in Three Kings (designed by Catherine Hardwicke), concrete labyrinths festooned with inspirational political posters and Arabic carpets and crowded with piles of electronic gadgets and household appliances looted from Kuwait.

11) After the relatively functional camera style of his first two films, Russell took an entirely new tack with Three Kings, destabilizing the story with a barrage of MTV-like visual effects: disorienting zooms, tilted camera, telephoto closeups, trashed film stock, pixilation, and slow motion.  The principal effect of this style is to erode the force of the narrative line and to rob action scenes of their clarity, fragmenting them into unheroic mosaics of blurred motion and bloodletting.  Though the visual tools are more varied, the treatment of action in Three Kings calls Peckinpah to mind; one scene, the cease-fire-breaking shootout with the Iraqi army, almost seems to be quoting The Wild Bunch.

12) The medical theme of Monkey (Davies is a medical student, his mother a would-be doctor who gave up her studies, the television in their house usually tuned to a medical channel) returns in Three Kings, heightening the physical, unheroic quality of the action.  In a winking homage to his character in ER, Special Forces officer George Clooney is able to diagnose any war injury, and even to insert a shunt into Wahlberg’s bullet-damaged chest cavity to prevent air pressure from crushing his lungs; Clooney’s explanations of internal injuries are accompanied by graphic visualizations that force us to experience the film’s violence in an empathetic and concrete way.  Bullets in Three Kings are fearsome, flesh-destroying objects (their impact enhanced with sickening ripping sound effects), not signifiers of power or victory; a gas attack leaves the protagonists’ faces dripping with tears and mucus.

13)After two decades of hoping for little from Hollywood entertainment film, we are disoriented to realize that today’s most promising young American director has the temperament and ambition to make a beeline for the heart of the entertainment industry.  Three Kings demonstrates that Russell can work with undiminished inspiration in Hollywood, but also that he is vulnerable to the pitfalls of industry filmmaking; one hopes that its commercial success increases his bargaining power without diluting his individuality.


* This scene, originally showing only the three married couples in the film’s theatrical release, was expanded in the video release to include footage of Leoni and of the gay couple (Jenkins and Josh Brolin).