Playing House: David O. Russell’s Romantic Realism

“I felt like we had a secret, just the two of us. Like that thing where you just wanna be with one person all the time. You feel like the two of you get something no one else gets,” (American Hustle). This is how it feels when watching a David O. Russell film: a newly found relationship between Russell and the audience. He is able to achieve this by using the realistic approach of a romanticized subject which he is able to translate into two hours of character driven, comedic pleasure. David O. Russell first brings you into the heart of the community with The Fighter, later on he brings you home to meet the family with Silver Linings Playbook, and then things get beautifully complicated as you slowly get to see his true identity with American Hustle. David O. Russell plays house with a loose trilogy dealing with a romantic approach to everyday life.

David O. Russell developed a new style of filmmaking when he made a trilogy of films that dealt with the topic of neighborhood, family, and identity. This collection included The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, where he touches base with all of these topics and emphasizes one in particular for each film. The Fighter, which is the first of these films, is inspired by a true story that revolves around Micky Ward, a man struggling to break away from the working class Massachusetts upbringing by taking a chance to develop a boxing career. While the story revolves around his family, it truly shines when it focuses on Micky’s neighborhood and how that influenced the way he fights. Russell wanted to take that impact inflicted upon Micky by the community through on location filming. This included a real gym where Dicky trained his brother Micky, an apartment in downtown Lowell and a bar where Micky meets and pursues the bartender[1]. This allowed the film to have an accurate portrayal of a community and its people. Also, Russell demanded authentic Boston accents from his actors instead of sticking to a traditional American accent. This included Welsh actor Christian Bale, who recorded conversations with the person his character was based on so he could learn to mimic his voice[2]. This embedded feel for the community is what helped deliver the film’s core message of an against all odds local hero story. By approaching this story in a realistic manner with on location filming in Massachusetts, Russell was able to romanticize how a community is able to affect the way one is able to move through life. Micky’s feeling of disappointment from the community was what helped him continue to grow and improve himself, and Russell was able to bring this idea to light. He continued this notion with his next film, Silver Linings Playbook.

David O Russell was inspired when he first got his hands on Silver Linings Playbook because it dealt with a topic he was familiar with; Russell’s oldest son is bipolar[3]. Silver Linings Playbook centers on Pat, a man struggling with his bipolar disorder, which is discovered after he violently attacks a man who he finds sleeping with his wife. There were many ways to approach the topic of a mental disorder, but Russell decided to focus on how it affects the family as a whole.
Silver Linings Playbook was an enormous emotional thing for me because it was like taking all the anguish of the experience with our son that has been an ingrown struggle and bringing it into the light of day,” Russell said (Galloway 72). When finding a balance for the film, Russell relied on Robert De Niro’s character to showcase the way to keep the angst at bay, something Russell learned through his journey of filmmaking (Galloway 74). Even more so, Russell wanted to play up on the dysfunctional way Pat’s family interacts with one another, which included a crazy ritual for watching Philadelphia Eagle games. Instead of shying away from the controversy, Russell honed in on how people are at the mercy of their feelings[4]. There are several scenes in the film that show how Pat deals with situations compared to a normal person, such as hurling a copy of “A Farewell to Arms” out of his attic and then maniacally running to tell his parents of his frustration with the novel. Russell’s choice of letting him tell his parents of his frustration compared to dealing with them alone granted the audience a glimpse how a mental disorder can bring a family together and tear them apart at the same time. Ultimately, being able to grow and love as a family is the takeaway from Russell’s film. That is why most of the scenes in the film are filled with Pat’s dysfunctional family compared to just Pat alone. Russell’s choice of exploring the dynamic between Pat and his family is what made the film the feel good movie of the year. Russell continued to weave this type of storytelling when he went into making his last film of the trilogy, American Hustle.

When David O. Russell went into making American Hustle, he struggled with finding a direction. He finally found his light when he “kept telling the story of the film from the different perspectives… a colorful and enchanting world, and an intimate and raw feel,” (Dillon 30). In American Hustle we are greeted with several characters looking for something better as they try to survive in a world ran on lies. For example, Irving Rosenfeld is a self-made conman who does whatever is needed to continue on in this dog eat dog world. His mistress, Sydney Prosser, fakes her way through daily situations to gain what is needed. His wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld, uses her son to keep Irving from walking out the door. Lastly, the cop who turned his world upside down, Richie DiMaso, is digging for his big break and will stop at nothing to make his way to the top. David O. Russell specifically manufactured each of these characters to bring to light the desperateness for each person to find where they belong. “They all have to be woven together in a way that is frightening, surprising, heartbreaking, enchanting — all those emotions that I love,” Russell noted in an interview (Galloway 73). Although each character was woven together, the story really shined with scenes between Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser. Irving and Sydney both faked their way through life, but together they were able to be who they wanted to be. For example, Sydney puts on a fake British accent and automatically becomes Lady Edith Greensly to everyone with only Irving seeing her true identity. This is similar to Irving who was forced into a conman lifestyle, when he truly longed for a family lifestyle where he didn’t need to lie to survive. These characters are drawn to each other by their need to survive and find a safe haven in one another that no one else can offer. The mask they put on for everyone else is what allowed American Hustle to grow away from the ABSCAM storyline, and emphasize more on how David O. Russell threshes out characters and their development. This is something Russell focused on when making The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle.

Each of these three films Russell became entangled with, he grew away from the story and zoned in how characters makes things possible. When talking about the films as a whole, Russell said “it’s about very specific characters with their very specific worlds, and they’re as dramatic and emotional as they are funny. They have their enchantments. The way they drink, eat, dance, make love and listen to music is as important to me as the story,” (Dillon 30). This is what allowed this collection of films to thrive. It is a continuing story of growing up, figuring things out, and relying on the others to help get you by. David O Russell does not fit the conventional standards of filmmaking because he strives to tell a story that uses the little details as motivation for a story of multiple people becoming a family.


[1] The Fighter filming locations in Lowell, Massachusetts

[2] An interview titled “Letting His Role Do the Talking,” by Dennis Lim

[3] Russell touches base in “American Hustler,” on why he was drawn to Silver Linings Playbook, by Stephen Galloway. Print article, not found on web.

[4] See Periodical on David O. Russell with Silver Linings Playbook, by Benjamin Endsley Klein.