David O Russell: Comeback King?

David O Russell: Comeback King? film still

He was the Gen X golden boy who very nearly became a casualty of the Hollywood machine. Now, with Silver Linings Playbook set to restore his credibility, is David O Russell finally back on track?

It all started with incest. In the year that Pulp Fiction and Clerks put indie cinema on the map, David O Russell burst on to the scene with his wickedly subversive feature debut, Spanking The Monkey. He was an exciting new voice at a time when Hollywood was buying in to the lo-fi aesthetic that would come to define American cinema in the mid- to late-'90s.

His second film, Flirting With Disaster, a mildly disappointing screwball crowd-pleaser tailor-made for the Miramax era, landed him his first studio gig. Though billed as a star-packed action movie set in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Three Kings provided a searing portrait of American foreign policy and is perhaps the finest war satire since Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. Then, seemingly at the height of his powers, O Russell went AWOL.

What happened during his five-year hiatus from 1999 to 2004 remains unclear, but tabloid tales of egomaniac outbursts began to leak from the sets of Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings – he feuded with Ben Stiller and got in a fist fight with George Clooney. The arrival of O Russell's fourth film ostensibly signalled a return to form, but rather than salvaging his career, I Heart Huckabees came close to stopping it dead.

In March 2007 a now infamous video was released showing O Russell unleashing a C-bomb strewn tirade at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees. Though Tomlin was quick to jump to his defense, the damage to O Russell's integrity had been done. He then set out to make a political comedy co-written with Kristen Gore entitled Nailed, only for the production to be shut down four times in 2008 as a result of the crew going on strike for not being paid. All the while O Russell's reputation as an emotionally unstable firebrand grew. With only two-thirds of the film in the can, the cameras stopped rolling and the cast walked away.

By late 2009 O Russell was a forgotten man. The stage was set for a comeback. In 2011 he made his big return with The Fighter, for which he was hired on the back of an endorsement from his long-time friend and collaborator Mark Wahlberg. A notable departure from the filmmaker's previous work, The Fighter confirmed that the gleefully caustic O Russell of old had been pacified.

His latest film as writer/director, Silver Linings Playbook, which hits UK cinemas on Wednesday November 21, is underpinned by a familiar sense of restraint. For the most part it's a quirky black comedy about mental illness that cleverly accentuates the underlying insanity in all of us. Yet its disappointingly conservative ending smacks of playing it safe.

Right now O Russell's career is at an interesting crossroads. His last two movies brought him back from the brink by proving he could play nice, first as a gun-for-hire and then when developing his own material. But the comeback isn't complete just yet. A lingering question remains: where does he go from here?

It’s not out of the question that O Russell could use the projected success of Silver Linings to secure funding for a more esoteric project. Indeed, he's reported to be working on an untitled drama starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams that will be funded by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, the production company behind Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master and John Hillcoat's Lawless. He's also been heavily linked to a major adaptation of the popular Uncharted video game franchise, about a fictional modern-day treasure hunter. Hardly vintage O Russell, but a sign that he may be regaining his foothold in the industry.

Telling though it may be that several of O Russell's once more scabrous Gen X peers – most notably Kevin Smith and Cameron Crowe – have mellowed significantly in recent years, O Russell's unpredictable nature makes him difficult to ignore. The potential signalled by his early films remains unfulfilled, but against the odds he looks to have found his way back on the right, albeit more populist, path.

Now read our review of Silver Linings Playbook.

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