In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1986 and seven from 1996 (the extra in December’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Given that his four films since 2010 have raked two baker’s dozens of Oscar nominations and three wins, it’s easy to exclusively envision writer-director David O. Russell as an Important American Filmmaker. Detractors of Joy — Russell’s most recent, and least successful, film of his half-decade run — may argue that Russell’s folly is seeing himself that way, too.
Under bustling cameras and booming classic-rock soundtracks, Russell’s tales turn from tranquility to turmoil and back again on a dime. Grace or deliverance arrive only after they have smash-mouthed their way out of emotionally bloody battles royale. None of this is terribly surprising coming from a notoriously combative director who head-butted George Clooney during Three Kings, called Lily Tomlin a word that rhymes with what pitchers do at the plate while he filmed I Heart Huckabees and so deeply upset Amy Adams during American Hustle that Christian Bale (yes, Christian Bale) had to tell him to “stop acting like an asshole.” Indeed, the best of Russell’s recent work feels as much like breathlessly cathartic self-therapy as popular, praised entertainment. Clooney called working with Russell “truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.” This from a guy who had made Batman & Robin. Tomlin, meanwhile, later excused Russell, likening it to “a big fight in your family.”
Winning as it was, Joy also felt like a natural endpoint of the David O. Russell Repertory Company. There seem to be no further surprises from, or sides of, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro that he can show us; each has appeared in Russell’s last three films. Weirder still, Russell seems to have settled for a fruitful, if fitful, style of domestic-discord narrative and fence-swings for awards that have, as of yet, eluded him — and that’s a far cry from his enjoyably grab-bag milieu of just 12 years ago. For better or worse, 26 Oscar nominations across five years carries expectations that linger long.
Gone are the fuck-you gestures of a filmmaker once forced to return federal grant money after the movie about a fortune-cookie writer he said he’d make became 1994’s Spanking the Monkey — an obsidian-black comedy about mother-son incest. Or the one who so effortlessly slid from the slick, satirical action of Three Kings to ambitious, if halfhearted, comedy about intersecting commercial and existential impulses in Huckabees. Or the guy who happened to executive-produce Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. The only thing less predictable than what Russell did in his first 10 years in Hollywood? What he did before them, such as working in a Sandinista literacy program in Nicaragua before becoming a stateside community organizer, documentary filmmaker and PBS employee. Only after a couple of short-film parodies at Sundance did he make the jump to feature films at age 35 — rendering him a senior citizen among first-time filmmakers.
As refreshing, or perhaps necessary, as it may be for him, Russell seems unlikely to jump back into anything quite like 1996’s Flirting with Disaster. This straight-ahead comedy has little more on its mind than detonating farcical fireworks for its full boat of stars, but it nevertheless remains one of — if not the — finest of its form from the last 20 years. (Admittedly, relatively genial farces like this are few and far between in an era when cringe comedy has subsumed them; it’s rated R for the mildest of profanities.)
Working from his own script, Russell transplants the perpetual motion of plays like Arsenic and Old Lace into a yarn of contemporary marital and parental anxieties; call it Acid and New Garters. On one level, it’s an immaculately constructed Rube Goldberg device that accumulates energy and speed as it reaches its endpoint — a contraption to admire and nothing more. On the other, it addresses the social and emotional hypocrisies we use to try and paper over our vices, as Russell does now albeit with less seriousness. There is plenty of pathos behind every punchline, but there are always punchlines and none falls flat. Here is a film with so much going for it that Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda need not even show up for a good hour. Even then, it finds new ways to whiz and ping 10 hilarious characters off each other.
In fact, it’s surprising the Weinsteins — fond of and financially successful at Broadway productions — haven’t yet mounted this film of theirs as a straight stage play. It is so unmistakably suited to the form and short (87 minutes sans credits) that you could run it without act breaks twice daily and not tire the cast. Some characters even exit stage left, appropriately, never to return or be mentioned again. Hell, they could open it with Ben Stiller now playing one of the fathers rather than a man raised by adoptive parents who feels he must meet his biologicals before bestowing a name on his own newborn baby.
Tomlin has said Russell and Stiller tangled, too, on the set of Disaster. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those conversations about who “knew” comedy better. It would be two years before Stiller, a scion of silliness, became a big-time comedy star in There’s Something About Mary. But he had by then directed Reality Bites and The Cable Guy, as well as several episodes of his own short-lived sketch TV series. No matter who was the engine that really made it go, one brief scene at a bed-and-breakfast in Disaster serves as the birth of the put-upon, pissy pessimism that became Stiller’s bankable brand for decades to come. Props to the late Charlet Oberly, for whom Disaster is one of only three credited roles, as the dictatorial B&B lady, whose resolute authoritarianism launched a thousand Stiller jokes. Props also to production design on that B&B, whose appropriate décor is “flowers, copiously vomited.”
Perhaps Stiller chose to channel his confrontation with Russell into pent-up rage roiling inside Mel Coplin, the fundamentally unhappy museum curator whom we meet in voiceover as a montage mixes and matches possible looks and personalities of his birth parents. Since helping usher a life of his own into the world, Mel’s provenance feels like a ceaseless, cosmic carpet-swatch comparison. No matter the pattern forced upon him, he wants it laid wall-to-wall … all the better to cosmetically cover the sinking subfloor of his subconscious. His wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), can’t quite understand why Mel refuses to name their baby without meeting his birth parents. But it’s quickly clear this is a marriage where Mel’s own neurotic proclivities and obsessions have always taken precedence. And even as Nancy tries rekindling sparks, Mel can’t seem to let go of a two-month post-partum celibacy for which she asked.
Mel’s mental wellbeing also gains the full attention of Tina (Téa Leoni), a pending divorcée, former dancer and adoption agency representative. She claims to have found Mel’s birth mother in San Diego and tags along to visually document Mel’s reunion as part of her doctoral thesis. “The mystery of your unknown self is about to unfold,” Tina says without an ounce of irony. Her ongoing armchair analyses are appropriately smug, antagonistic and similarly self-delusional. It’s no wonder Mel starts to linger with her alone, and laugh heartily with her, much longer than he should. She, too, is a mess of her own making who will leave her mark on Mel and Nancy … as well as Mel’s adoptive parents, Pearl and Ed.
Pearl and Ed play minor roles in the story, but so marvelous are Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal that in mere seconds we see — with perfect, uproarious clarity — how they have shaped Mel … or, to the point, misshaped him. Like dead-shot marksmen to clay pigeons, these parents pick off other people’s problems before they even achieve altitude and always turn the talk back to them. Pearl condemns Nancy physically “letting herself go” in motherhood, amplified by Moore (then pushing 60) hiking her own blouse to brazenly show off her cleavage as proof. Cue Mel’s unreasonable expectations and immediate neediness. Then there’s Ed, willing to assert himself against anyone except Pearl. You see the urge to control, and the Pavlovian response to acquiesce, in his face just as you do in Mel’s. Cue Mel’s inability to logically and decisively act on expectations, however misguided. It’s here that Russell sets up one half of a very witty parable for the nature-versus-nurture debate.
Pearl and Ed definitely made Mel. Valerie Swaney (Celia Weston), a Scottish-Finnish zodiac-statue aficionado in San Diego whom the paperwork says birthed Mel, couldn’t have possibly been responsible for any of him. And she quickly rescinds gifts bestowed – and forgiveness for accidental destruction Mel causes – when she learns of the error. Disaster is easily Russell’s most visually plainspoken film with a budget; the script is certainly authorial stamp enough. But he still deploys sly, subtle visual ideas early on. Mel’s half-sisters, twins who have just won a beach volleyball championship, give him a celebratory orange T-shirt. Its comic oversizing is but one edge of the joke; it looks and hangs off him like a life preserver for Mel’s neuroses, whose long and slow deflation he’s powerless to plug. As the Swaneys exit, Russell also lingers long enough on the noticeably empty frame and Mel’s disappointment.
Tina’s mortified efforts to make things right leads Mel to Fritz Boudreau (David Patrick Kelly, a veteran That Guy of always-welcome anarchy), a hair-trigger truck-driver in a fictitious snowy butthole of Michigan. Fritz immediately lays hands on his would-be son, demanding to know what this “turdface” wants from him. Although Fritz is clearly nowhere near old enough to be Mel’s dad, it doesn’t stop Mel from trying to pal up to Fritz’s aggressive lifestyle of masculinity … with disastrous consequences.
To spoil more of how the story spins sideways from there would unjustly plunder the pleasures of watching Russell box them into tighter corners. But a brief summary: Fritz was the one who dropped Mel off at the agency on behalf of Mel’s actual parents, Richard and Mary Schlichting (Alda and Tomlin), who currently live in New Mexico with their flamboyantly put-upon son, Lonnie (Glenn Fitzgerald). You might expect that the malapropism mispronunciation of Schlichting would grow tiresome, but everyone brings a novel, and amusing, level of disbelief, that their name could be the “Shitkings.” Plus, Mel’s misadventures in Michigan send ATF agents Paul (Richard Jenkins) and Tony (Josh Brolin) into their orbit — the latter an old chum of Nancy’s, whose breasts he fondly “remembers from high school.”
Never this buoyant before or since Disaster, Brolin achieves the right level of obnoxious boisterousness; the more Tony talks, the more suspicious we are. He’s an irksome imp Jason Bateman might play today, although even he might not play it as breezily as Brolin – an often squinty and clenched presence whose closest return to comedy was this year’s Hail, Caesar!, although even that character was filtered through a certain self-loathing. Tony loves life too much to question anything he does in it. Meanwhile, the powder-keg cantankerousness from Jenkins — one of the best character actors working in this or any era — powers Russell’s secret weapon for two delayed, and devastatingly funny, gags. There is as much purposeful misdirection at play here as there is narrative mischance or miscommunication, and Jenkins draws your gaze away from two major jokes just long enough that the payloads and payoffs explode. Paul also gets one of the film’s funniest one-liners: “Without spontaneity, the world of B&Bs is rather meaningless.” And you may also spot he’s the only one not wearing shades in sunny New Mexico … indicative that he sees things more clearly than anyone else along for the ride.
Although Alda and Tomlin are only slightly longer footnotes than Moore or Segal, we see in them, too, echoes of Mel — patience up to a point, pleasantly patronizing platitudes, selfish self-preservation. Here, Russell seems to say, nature and nurture matter — an idea bolstered by an unexpected visual motif of Ronald Reagan as a simultaneous symbol of calm and chaos.
Russell also suggests peaceful cohabitation of any stripe, legal or otherwise, constitutes a fine balance in both states of being, and does so most strongly through Arquette’s performance. In a film so nutty, the straight woman role could seem thankless, but her work and Russell’s script elevate it to a level of refinement. Nancy is far more perceptive, and confident in her own curvaceously sexy skin, than her husband has given due credit for in far too long. At the apex of insanity, Disaster cuts back to a quiet scene with Mel and Nancy recommitting to one another … or at least learning to hug the curve of the brink rather than breaching it altogether. In that moment, Disaster also becomes a rather lovely paean to the strength of marriage in overcoming strife; as one character says, “Every marriage is vulnerable. Otherwise being married wouldn’t mean anything, would it?”
So go three seamlessly cleaved acts of dissent, dysfunction and drollery — an obvious template for the cacophony Russell brought to The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (his best works this decade). Although far less caustic than either of those films, it’s no less consequential thanks to Russell’s unpredictably raucous energy — a mood and a mode he might do well to rediscover one of these days.