[Left to right, director David O. Russell discusses a scene in "The… (Jojo Whilden )
Many storied director-actor pairings make sense. You can understand why Martin Scorsese works often with Leonardo DiCaprio, who lends vulnerability to the director's tough-guy roles. Or how Johnny Depp channels Tim Burton's whimsy.
But David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg? That's a match Felix Unger and Oscar Madison couldn't have dreamed up.
The director and the actor are, to put it mildly, a case of the artiste and the bad boy. The fussy auteur and the former teenybopper sensation. The taskmaster director and the one-time inmate. And yet the pair are not only frequent collaborators but friends, inhabiting a kind of personal and professional marriage of odd-couple proportions.
Sitting in the back of a midtown Manhattan restaurant on a chilly late November night, the pair are reminiscing about an informal arrangement they had long before they decided to collaborate on "The Fighter," their third film together, which opens Friday. Wahlberg would call the director and recommend boxing documentaries, and Russell would suggest French New Wave films he thought that the underwear-model-turned-actor, not a man who might otherwise be partial to cinephile classics, needed to see.
"The Catherine Deneuve movie? What was that one?" asks Wahlberg, dressed in a working-class casual uniform of a flannel shirt, stonewashed jeans and work boots.
"'Belle du Jour,'" answers Russell, elegant in a dark sweater.
"'Belle du Jour.' Oh, and '400 Blows,'" Wahlberg replies.
Russell laughs. "That's like the Mark Wahlberg movie from France."
"I can't tell you how much that connected with me," Wahlberg says, leaning back in disbelief as though he had just finished watching it. "I was bawling at the end. The kid had nowhere to go."
Wahlberg and Russell previously joined forces on the Gulf War dramedy "Three Kings" and the metaphysical black comedy "I Heart Huckabees." Russell famously clashed on set with other actors during both productions. But somehow he and Wahlberg have found harmony. "I feel like our collaboration is an instrument," said Russell. "And we're really starting to learn how to use it."
Getting in the ring
"The Fighter" is the true story of the welterweight boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Wahlberg), his half-brother Dicky Eklund, a boxing-prospect-turned-crack-addict ( Christian Bale) and a colorful group of friends and family in
a working-class Lowell, Mass., neighborhood not far from where Wahlberg himself grew up.
Ward is on the wrong side of 30 and going nowhere fast, managed by a domineering mother ( Melissa Leo) and held back by family loyalty — particularly to Eklund — until a new girlfriend ( Amy Adams) prompts a change. Ward goes on to win the welterweight title and fight several historic bouts against Arturo Gatti.
Unlike a formulaic underdog boxing movie, "The Fighter" has a lot going on behind its eye of the tiger, tackling the conflict between family obligations and personal ambition, and with comedic flair. Punctuating the film are boxing-movie staples — training montages and fight scenes — but for long stretches in between there are the complicated dynamics of a half-dozen family relationships. It's Wahlberg and Russell's richest effort — a product of the actor's longtime desire to play Ward (he also produced the movie and was its driving force) and what Russell says is his willingness to finally free himself of the yoke of indecision.
"I don't know how to say this except that I feel that I see things much more clearly. I don't turn over an idea as I once would," said the 52-year-old director, who said he believes that "The Fighter" is his best movie. "Maybe it's just that I've gotten older, but when I have a conflict I'm, like, 'We're going this way or we're going to go that way …' as opposed to, 'Gee, I'm not sure how to make is work. Maybe let's try this?'"
It also may have helped that this is Russell's first movie that he didn't write (Scott Silver, best known for "8 Mile," was the latest in a series of writers to work on the script). Or is the fact that Russell is willing to direct a movie he didn't write itself a sign of letting go?
Indecision and control issues certainly ruled the day on "Huckabees." Wahlberg recalls that before they started shooting "Huckabees," Russell would "have four or five different ideas. And he'd call me and say, 'We're going to do this. No, wait, we're going to do that.' And I'd say to him, 'Let's go, dude. At this pace you're going to make six movies in your entire career.'"
Russell began his feature career in 1994 with the indie darling "Spanking the Monkey" and followed it in 1996 with the screwball comedy "Flirting With Disaster," then "Three Kings" in 1999. But he hasn't completed a movie since "Huckabees" flopped six years ago. (This year he took his name off, and walked away from, the political comedy "Nailed" after several financing-related shutdowns.)