Saturday, December 1, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook Movie Review

Director David O. Russell has become something of a specialist in staging chaotic family scenarios with emotions running to a fever pitch and pushing the comedy of the moment nearly to the breaking point. He did it several times in his sophomore effort Flirting with Disaster, which had Ben Stiller on a cross-country search for his birth parents, and then most recently in The Fighter with boxer Mark Wahlberg and his girlfriend, played by a tough Amy Adams, squaring off against his seventeen or so sisters. In Silver Linings Playbook, his newest film that he both directed and wrote (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) brings together just about every character, lead and supporting, under one roof for a scene that would be greatly comedic if it weren’t also somewhat tragic at the same time. It’s a scene that I thought just about went over the edge of reason, but Russell brings it back to earth before things get out of hand.


Bradley Cooper, in what could be a career-defining role, plays Pat Solitano Jr., who has just been released from a mental health facility after a violent breakdown in which he nearly beat a man to death after catching him in the shower with his wife. We only catch that scene, which takes place before the timeline of the film, in brief snippets as Pat recalls the incident – as he so evasively refers to it – to his therapist. Pat has bi-polar disorder, but he refuses to take his medication because of the fog it casts over him. He has developed an optimistic philosophy which he calls ‘Excelsior,’ a Latin word meaning ‘ever-upward,’ in order to show his estranged wife Nikki, who now has a restraining order against him, that he has the ability to change. Pat harbors several fantasies, the least of which is that he and Nikki will get back together if he can just keep his aggression under control. That takes us to his biggest fantasy, which is that he can control his disorder on his own. He does an admirable job, to a point, until something triggers an outburst like reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms or hearing Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.”

Trying to reinvent himself, he stays in his childhood home with his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. We see in his father the source of inherited mental health problems. Pat Sr. has minor OCD issues and a history of aggressive behavior as well – he’s banned for life from the Philadelphia Eagles stadium for fighting. De Niro plays him as vulnerable and withdrawn, a man who cares about his family and wants the best for his ailing son, but also can’t see the part he’s played in shaping him. Weaver, who was frighteningly good as the mother of a brood of criminal killers in Animal Kingdom, plays a mother of a completely different kind here. She’s supposed to be the mortar holding everything together, but she’s sometimes just barely treading water, desperately trying to keep her family from coming apart at the seams.

What keeps everything from being entirely dramatic is Pat’s encounter at a dinner party with, Tiffany, an equally troubled young widow played by Jennifer Lawrence. There’s a quick and intense chemistry between the two of them, as if the recent loss of a spouse should bring them together. She practically throws herself at him, but he’s still holding out for a reconciliation with his wife. There is so little in this story that is not actually a cliché, from the romantic linking of two people with mental health issues to the friend (Chris Tucker) from the mental hospital who enters at key moments to provide comic relief. But the performances never sink into rote displays of generic types. Lawrence and Cooper are both so good I would be surprised if they don’t find themselves with trips to the Academy Awards early next year. Lawrence, though only 21 years old when she made the movie, is one of the most grown-up actresses of her generation. She proves here that her excellent turn in Winter’s Bone was not a fluke. Scenes of Pat waking his parents in the middle of the night to rant about the unnecessarily bleak ending of a novel or to locate his wedding video could so easily have become generic were it not for Cooper’s ability to really sell the unhinged lunacy in his character.

The plot demands a means of bringing Tiffany and Pat together as often as possible and so it contrives a dance competition that Tiffany wants to enter if only she had a partner. She uses her connections to Nikki and possibility of delivering a letter to her to bribe Pat into dancing with her. This is dance as mental health exercise, but also as a way of forcing two characters to fall in love. It’s a classic cinematic trope, from Fred and Ginger to Johnny and Baby, but it works because of Cooper’s and Lawrence’s believability in the roles.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s previous feature film work involves the dark and dreary interiors of Warrior and the claustrophobic exteriors of The Grey. Here he’s working a lot in daylight, much brighter than those two films, but he and Russell keep the camera in mostly tight shots, framing his subjects in a way that reflects how they’re trapped within themselves. The dance scenes begin to open up, allowing the visual space to expand, giving Pat and Tiffany room to move and develop.

This is by far one of the most entertaining good movies of the year, something Russell has truly excelled at through his career. Being a romance film (I have trouble labeling it a romantic comedy because the comedy is not traditional but comes more from a recognition that certain erratic behaviors seem amusing from the outside) as well as something close to serious drama Silver Linings Playbook should have a broad range of appeal. It’s engaging, charming and so earnestly winning without pandering that I can hardly think of a recent film I’d more willingly see a second time.

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