For this writer, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle make for a better trilogy than The Dark Knight.
Trilogies are all the rage. The past 20 years have seen countless blockbuster threesomes ravage the box office with bravado, swagger and charm. From the wholesome comfort of The Lord of the Rings to the chaos of The Dark Knight, big-budget movie triplets generally follow a neat linear narrative – complete with recurring goodies and baddies – all the way to the bank. But as the phrase ‘loose trilogy’ is increasingly bandied about, all slapdash and pretentious-like, directors such as David O. Russell are stringing movies together on threads of theme, characterisation and style.
With last week’s UK release of the astonishingly good American Hustle, now is as good a time as any to take a look at what makes Russell’s latest three movies form one of the trilogies of the decade.
David O. Russell is stringing ‘loose trilogies’ together on threads of theme, characterisation and style
Following his post-Gulf War masterpiece (yes, masterpiece) Three Kings (1999), the maverick talent took a shock leave of absence, offering only a disappointing meta-comedy in 2004’s I heart Huckabees, before resurfacing in 2010. But it was worth the wait: his earthy and heartfelt comeback The Fighter garnered well deserved critical and Oscar acclaim, only to be topped by 2012’s startling Silver Linings Playbook. Alongside American Hustle, they form a trio of poignant character portrayals about outcasts and underdogs, who are helping redefine what it is to be a Hollywood hero.
The Fighter followed the escapades of troubled ex-boxer-cum-crack addict Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) as he struggles from rock bottom to be a worthy coach and mentor to his brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg). Set on the run-down streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, it casts a shocking, often humorous light on life in the suburbs.
Humour and suburbia are never far away these days for Russell. Silver Linings was a disarmingly funny and dramatic look at a middle-American family battling the trials of bipolar disorder from their home in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Following a spell in a mental health facility, Pat (Bradley Cooper) returns to his parents’ place and, with the help of the plucky and equally troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), hopes to win back his estranged wife. Cooper and the brilliant Lawrence embody a fragile quarter of society typically too damaged for the sparkle of a major Hollywood romance, but with Russell at the helm the sensitive material makes for utter cinematic magic.
Through Russell’s characters we explore the underbelly of picket-fence America, where despair and hope bubble beneath the surface
So both The Fighter and Silver Linings are concerned with unconventional partnerships between ‘dysfunctional’ people in search of healing. Through these characters we explore the murky underbelly of picket-fence America, where fragility, despair and hope steam and bubble beneath the surface. Be sure to note the repetition of jogging scenes: the main characters of both films are all at some point shown pacing across the suburban landscapes that Russell so tenderly undresses.
American Hustle also spares a thought for maladjusted partnerships in grassroots America, with Irving Rosenfeld’s (Christian Bale) unglamorous dry cleaners a key setting of the film’s central romance: seduced by swathes of lost property, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) sinks into Irv’s embrace in a swirl of abandoned cotton-wear. With the “science oven” in Hustle, Pat Sr’s (Robert De Niro) knick knack compulsions in Silver Linings and Dicky’s homely crack den in The Fighter, everyday iconography is often laced with threat.
Like its predecessors, Hustle also strikes a balance between comedy and desperation. Following the greasy, pot-bellied conman Irv and his complex partner, it’s the story of a “fake Sheik” honeypot scam aimed at lifting the veil on a corrupt political world. With wild FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) behind the wheel of the operation, treading a dangerously fine line between hilarity and extreme violence, the film does incredibly well to remain the right side of tasteful.
In less than three hours per film we come to adore each and every last character, warts ‘n’ all. Their triumph is Russell’s gift to us
Refreshingly, characterisation takes precedent over plot in all three instalments, with striking similarities in each: Cooper’s Pat and DiMaso share a violent disposition and rapid-fire stream of consciousness, but Pat’s goofy ramblings lend to a more sympathetic reading than that of his sexually frustrated counterpart; the smart and resourceful Prosser has a lot in common with Charlene Fleming (both are played by Adams) in The Fighter; while Bale’s Irv and Dicky are larger-than-life survivors, brimming with guts and soul. It comes as no surprise to see the same actors, including De Niro and Lawrence, turn up time and again for a director whose focus is on the moments that define us.
The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle are like Russian dolls of varying patterns, bursting forth from one another. Pivotal to their success is that all three end in victory for the main characters. But what really matter are our heroes’ experiences, the relationships they form and the fact that in less than three hours per film we invariably come to adore each and every last one of them, warts ‘n’ all. Their triumph is Russell’s gift to us. And it’s quite a gift. For me, it beats the hell out of Batman.
Featured image: The Weinstein Company
Inset images: The Weinstein Company; Columbia