When major directors find their muse, it’s often easy to detect the ways in which the star represents a more well-groomed alternate-universe version of the filmmaker. For instance, it wouldn’t be a stretch for Johnny Depp to play Tim Burton in the movie version of the filmmaker’s life. Likewise, Robert DeNiro could stand in for Martin Scorsese as could Christian Bale for Christopher Nolan.
However some of the more enduring marriages of actor and director continue to confound. We’re at a loss to explain the bond between David Fincher and Brad Pitt. And it’s anyone’s guess how Denzel Washington became Tony Scott’s on-screen avatar. Admittedly, David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg initially seemed to fit into that category as mismatched director and muse. Prior to their early collaborations on “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Russell and Wahlberg were among the last two people we’d have guessed might cast their creative fortunes together.
However, the critical and commercial success of “The Fighter” cleared up any doubts we may have had about the relationship’s durability. That sentiment was further underlined today when Russell and Wahlberg announced their next collaboration — an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook, about a former high school teacher who moves back in with his mother and tries to convince his ex-wife of his stability after a four-year stint in a mental institution. It’s a rich setup with clear ties to Russell’s early explorations of intense mother-son relationships (“Spanking the Monkey“) and the funny-sad fallout of marriage strain (“Flirting with Disaster“).
But Wahlberg remains the mystery ingredient in this recipe. How does this role correspond to any character he’s played before? Really, the only constant is Russell. The two have worked together repeatedly, after connecting on the set of “Three Kings,” Russell’s Iraq War masterpiece of social satire, which starred Wahlberg as a family man finishing his stint in the first Gulf War who gets roped into a gold heist along with several of his fellow soldiers, played by Spike Jonze, George Clooney, and Ice Cube. They next collaborated on “I Heart Huckabees,” a critically divisive film about quantum physics, meditation, and the nature of existence among other things. Wahlberg brought a sad-slow tenderness to his role as an existentially confused fireman in the midst of a divorce and stole the film out from under the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, and Jason Schwartzman. But “Huckabees” divided critics and deterred moviegoers. And it wasn’t until “The Fighter” that their unique alchemy finally paid off with biggest commercial and critical success of either of their careers.
So it’s no wonder Russell might be looking to reunite. “Playbook” will require Wahlberg to skate a line between emotional imbalance and winning likability — a tough balance to strike for any actor and one he’s never attempted to pull off before. Still, sometimes taking a risk is the safest bet when it comes to the ineffable source of creative success.
We’ve always been huge admirers of Russell’s work. And we’re gradually coming to appreciate what Wahlberg brings to the party. So, this is one odd couple whose relationship we hope lasts. What are some other examples of the best and worst matched pairings of directors and their movie star muses?