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David O. Russell: The New Preston Sturges?

David O. Russell: The New Preston Sturges?

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Feature by: Beth Gilligan

Posted on: 17 January 2005

Related articles:

Reviews: Three Kings

Screening Log: I ♥ Huckabees

External links:

David O. Russell (IMDB)

Preston Sturges (IMDB)

www.prestonsturges.com

In a dizzying burst of productivity during the 1940s, a writer-director named Preston Sturges churned out eight feature-length Hollywood comedies within a four-year span, the majority of which were justly hailed as instant classics. With offbeat titles like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, and The Great McGinty, Sturges’ films were populated by equally eccentric characters, ranging from a father-daughter team of con artists, a small-town floozy impregnated by a man whose name she can’t remember, a marine discharged on account of hay fever, and a group of eccentric millionaire bachelors who travel by train. Given these traits, it is hardly surprising that the contemporary directors who most often draw comparisons to Sturges are the Coen Brothers, who in turn have made no attempts to disguise their admiration for the late master, even going so far as to include a reference to a Sturges film in the title of one of their recent comedies, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

While the parallels between Sturges and the Coens are too plentiful to overlook, what is often missing in the Coen Brothers’ comedies are the satirical daggers that Sturges aimed at touchy subjects like wartime patriotism, small-town promiscuity, Hollywood, politics, marriage, and just about every other value the Hayes Office held sacred at the time. The Coen Brothers may match Sturges when it comes to antic, screwball humor, but their comedies have more of an insular focus and are far less preoccupied with skewering the morals of the society at large.

Viewed through this lens, the true heir to the Sturges sensibility may well be David O. Russell. Although more overtly political than those of Sturges, Russell’s films offer the same blend of sidesplitting humor and brazen challenges to societal norms. It’s a difficult combination to pull off, and it’s to Russell’s vast credit that he manages it without condescending to his characters (cf. Alexander Payne) or coming across as preachy or heavy-handed (cf. Jay Roach and recent work by Woody Allen).

Comedy is a notoriously difficult genre to work within, and many Hollywood directors fall into the trap of inserting scenes and/or characters they know will get an easy laugh, regardless of whether they fit into the context of the film as a whole. In the best Sturges and Russell films, each scene and character works in service to the movie as a whole, reinforcing major themes without sacrificing laughs. Both men show an unusual grasp of satire as a way not only to poke fun at society, but also to suggest implicitly ways in which it may be improved.

In doing so, they touch upon many subjects that are considered, to put it mildly, taboo. David O. Russell’s 1994 debut feature, Spanking the Monkey, might be your standard coming of age dramedy, save for one element: the confused medical student protagonist winds up sleeping with his domineering mother. Russell raised eyebrows further with his third feature, Three Kings. Amidst rumors of tension with the studio (in this case, Warner Brothers) and on-set fistfights with star George Clooney, Russell shaped a dark comedy about the first Gulf War that was at once a heist movie and a brazen critique of the first Bush administration’s foreign policy. Not content to have only ruffled the feathers of Bush the elder, Russell recently directed a short documentary about the current Iraq conflict called Soldier’s Pay, which was dropped from the Three Kings DVD after the studio deemed it overly biased.

While Sturges may have had less of an overtly political ax to grind, he was no stranger to controversy. He spent the bulk of his career squabbling with his studio bosses, and upon the release of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a screwball comedy in which a small-town girl attends a farewell ball for the troops, gets drunk, elopes with a departing G.I., and find herself pregnant but with no recollection of her husband’s name, the critic James Agee gleefully proclaimed that “the Hayes Office must have been raped in its sleep.”

Although The Lady Eve is widely considered Sturges’ masterpiece, his most personal — and in many ways, most difficult — film is Sullivan’s Travels. Whereas most of Sturges’ other movies (he directed 12 in all, his career cut short by a fatal heart attack in 1959) strictly toed the comedy line, in Sullivan’s Travels he put forth a curious blend of comedy and melodrama, including a seven-and-a-half minute musical interlude containing stark black & white images of Depression-era poverty.

The film’s main character, a Hollywood wunderkind named John L. Sullivan, has grown weary of directing blithe, successful comedies with names like Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939. With, as he puts it, “the world committing suicide…corpses piling up in the street, grim death gargling at you around every corner [and] people being slaughtered like sheep,” Sully (as he is more commonly known) cannot help but feel a sense of responsibility, a call to “hold a mirror up to life” and make a “document…a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.” His bosses initially beg to differ, but eventually agree to let their prized talent disguise himself as a hobo and embark on a journey that will allow the privileged young man a window into real suffering.

Along the way, Sully picks up a girl, outwits the studio press corps, and inadvertently winds up in a scary situation that gives him more insight into poverty and injustice than he could have ever possibly imagined. By the end of his journey, he has come to understand the joy comedy and laughter bring to people’s lives, and he subsequently abandons his plan of making depressing, socially realist films.

While some would later dub it “Sturges’ 8 1/2,” the film initially received mixed reviews and did only mediocre business at the box office. It has, however, endured over the time, not the least due to its hilariously jaundiced take on Hollywood. The film’s title and picaresque structure pay homage to the Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a novel still widely considered the greatest satire in the English language. In both instances, the protagonists make four journeys to lands where they encounter distorted versions of themselves. As in Gulliver’s Travels, in Sturges’ film it is not until the fourth journey that Sully finally learns something meaningful about himself and the world around him.

Intriguingly, this same structure loosely applies to Russell’s sophomore feature, Flirting with Disaster. In it, a young man named Mel drags his wife, five-month old son, and a sexy adoption caseworker across the country to seek out his birth parents and, by implication, his true identity. Like Sully, he searches far and wide before coming to the realization (on his fourth journey, no less) that everything he wanted was in front of him all along.

Russell’s latest film, I ♥ Huckabees, is in many ways an extension of the themes and preoccupations of Flirting with Disaster. Like Sully, Russell’s protagonists in both films are young men unafraid to ask larger questions about themselves and their place in the world. Set in the turbulent post-9/11 world (just as Sullivan’s Travels came at the tail end of the Depression and on the brink of America’s involvement in World War II), I ♥ Huckabees is Russell’s most challenging and exhilarating work yet.

I ♥ Huckabees more or less revolves around Albert Markovski, an environmentalist activist/poet who seeks the counsel of two existential detectives, Vivian and Brad Jaffe, when he finds his life and career at a crossroads. His chief concern is Brad Stand, a blond, carefree Huckabees (a Wal-Mart-like chain store) executive who is threatening to turn a local marsh into a shopping mall. As Albert struggles to make sense of it all, he finds an unlikely ally in Tommy Corn, an eco-conscious firefighter who enlisted the help of the detectives in the wake of September 11. Joining forces with the Jaffes, Albert and Tommy turn Brad’s world upside down, all the while learning to embrace the detectives’ message about the interconnectedness of human life.

Although Albert’s journey largely takes place inside his mind, as he sifts through the pieces of Buddhist, nihilist, and existentialist thought being tossed his way, his spiritual awakening mirrors Sully’s, which takes place inside a church that has been temporarily converted into a movie theater (showing a comedy, of course). Belying its director’s activist background, I ♥ Huckabees also takes on the dog-eat-dog mentality of corporate culture and materialist bent of contemporary American life. Like Sturges, Russell appears to take glee in exposing these hypocrisies, which makes it all the more curious that both men almost unfailingly end the movies they make on upbeat notes. One can only speculate that they perhaps agree with Sully’s assertion that, “in this cock-eyed caravan…laughter is all some people have.”

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