Thursday, January 24, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham, John Ortiz
Running Time: 120 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

With Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell walks the razor's edge between comedy and drama for 120 minutes. The feat he pulls off is so subtly miraculous it's likely few watching will conciously realize just how difficult it was. And I hope they don't. Analyzing it is the equivalent of trying to figure out a magician's greatest trick. It's best just not to think about it too much and enjoy the ride. The film is somehow even better than you've heard and that success is mainly attributable to its honesty, since, like its characters, it's always looking you straight in the eye and telling you the score. It's a searing no holds barred drama about mental illness while at the same a old fashioned, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy the likes of which we haven't experienced in years.

How this manages to be so edgy and disturbing, yet warm and inviting all comes down to tone and Russell masters it, pushing the conventions of the genre to its breaking point while still finding a way to play within its rules. It's not spoiling anything to reveal that the ending comes tied nicely in a bow but, for once, that's beside the point. If you only saw the final scenes you'd might think it was a fairy tale, which makes the fact that it feels so completely earned even more remarkable. And I believed every last minute of it. The suspense comes not in the anticipation of what will happen, or even how, but in the realization that you're nervous for these characters because you've been in their corner since the beginning. Sorely needed in an era when smart, mainstream crowd pleasers have seemingly gone out of style, it's the kind of film that makes me forget I'm supposed to be reviewing movies, serving instead as a reminder why I watch them. Empathizing with two mentally ill characters and their behaviors may not be a walk in the park, but if they're crazy, then it's a good bet we all are. 

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has it rough. After eight months he's finally released from the psychiatric hospital into the care of his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver), but his wife, Nikki still has a restraining order against him, stemming from the violent episode that put him there. While brutally attacking a fellow teacher who was having shower sex with his wife might qualify Pat for a medal instead of institutionalization, it's actually indicative of a much larger problem and the final straw in his lifelong battle with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. His father isn't in much better shape, having just been laid off and in the throes of a gambling addiction, betting on his beloved Philadelphia Eagles in hopes he'll earn enough to open a restaurant. He calls Pat his "lucky charm" for the games, but since his return home he's been anything but, refusing to take his meds and in complete denial about the collapse of his marriage.

Vowing to look for "silver linings" and stay positive, Pat sees his therapist (Anupam Kher) and starts physically training for what he hopes will be his eventual reunion with Nikki, but one that seems increasingly unlikely to happen with each violent outburst. Enter his friend's sister-in-law, Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed recovering sex addict stubbornly trying to strike up a friendship with him. But all Pat sees is in her is an opportunity to get back in touch with his ex. She'll help him out, but only in exchange for being her partner in an upcoming dance competition. Pat soon finds out the hard way he'll need to do more than just talk about having a positive attitude and finding silver linings to turn things around, and he'll need the help of his friends and family to do it.

Going by only the trailers and commercials, I was pretty sure I knew exactly what to expect going into this. Boy was I wrong. It basically looked like another As Good as It Gets, or a fluffy dramedy about a mentally ill man-child being cured by a beautiful woman. I was also concerned that Lawrence looked entirely too young for the role and fully expected to be creeped out by her pairing with Cooper, which seemed to stretch it even by Hollywood standards. But here's the thing. It doesn't matter. Chemistry is chemistry and there are no rules as to which actors can generate it together. Brilliant performances are brilliant performances and they can come from anywhere at anytime. When an actress is right for a part, she's just right for it. Age be damned. And it's a credit to Russell that his screenplay (adapted from Matthew Quick's 2008 novel) fully acknowledges that potential roadblock for audiences, clearing it right away.

From the moment Lawrence makes her entrance as Tiffany, it's clear no other actress could have played this quite like her or bounced off Cooper as skillfully. It's one of those tiny miracles that sometimes happen after you've cast a movie and realize all the actors attached dropped out for a reason and the cards aligned as such so that we could see these two stars appear together on screen, with a comic rhythm and energy that's unmatched. It's obvious from the characters' first awkwardly hilarious meeting, continuing into each succeeding scene. There's beauty in seeing a standard set-up being taken to places we've never seen before because of the conviction of the performances and pitch-perfect direction.The film often alternates wildly between emotional displays of anger and depression and flat-out hysterical comedy without missing a beat, often within a single scene. And Lawrence and Cooper are right there with it the entire time, hitting just the right notes.

Cooper (who might never hear the word "Hangover" again) displays a bottomless depth of emotion in this role no one could have expected, flipping a switch between scary outbursts and almost childlike naivete. When Pat demolishes his therapist's office after his wedding song plays over the loudspeakers, only to quickly recover and realize what he's done, the look of disappointment and hopeless resignation on his face says more than ten pages of dialogue could. The entire film is a push and pull as Pat struggles to stay positive and move forward with an illness that keeps pushing him back. We hardly see or get to know the wife who betrayed him, but it's impossible for us not to despise her anyway. Still, we can't help but wonder that if it wasn't that, would something else have sent him over the edge anyway?

Tiffany may be the pull to get Pat going, but she's NOT a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," the infamous term ascribed to a whimsical female movie character who exists for no other reason than to appear out of nowhere to save the male protagonist. Try telling Tiffany she's a MPDG. She'll more than likely give you the finger, tell you where you can shove your manic pixie dust, then kick your ass. Or sleep with you. Male or female. Doesn't matter. This is a character with agency, a life and goals of her own. It's easy to argue she's as motivated by Pat as he is by her. It's just another example of how Russell challenges us and Lawrence takes a character we think we know already and just completely subverts all expectations of how she's supposed to function in the story.

It's going to be tough for most (especially guys) to be able to separate Jennifer Lawrence from Tiffany Maxwell after this and that's not to in any way imply the actress is "playing herself," but is instead a testament to how deep a chord she hits by coming off so real. You believe she lost her husband at such a young age and that she's already this emotionally damaged from it. No games. She is who she is. And because the qualities we respect in her character come so close to the qualities anyone would respect in reality, the film straddles a line most hesitate even going near.

One of Lawrence's best scenes comes opposite Robert DeNiro's superstitious, gambling addicted patriarch, who partially blames himself for all his son's problems and thinks the Eagles can fix it. The way football is used in the story and how it informs this family's entire dynamic is masterful, perhaps representing the best incorporation of sports into a non-sports screenplay that I've ever seen. And for two hours it was great to finally have DeNiro back. This isn't Meet The Parents or Meet The Fockers we're talking about.. It's not just a huge role in screen time, but a hugely important one that the actor absolutely tears into with gusto, especially in his scenes with Cooper, with whom he has a great connection that seemingly carried over from their partnership in Limitless. It's as if all the skills we've long respected about his approach but were obscured for too long in sub-standard projects, are once again firing on all cylinders here. Firm but caring, and working hard to keep his family together despite obvious personality faults, the actor's essaying of Pat Sr. represents his best work in at least a decade, reaching its peak late in the picture.

Given a bit less to do, Jacki Weaver still brings a reassuring warmth to her role, making the most of her screen time as a mother trying to keep both her son and husband on the straight and narrow. Even Chris Tucker gives an unusually restrained performance as Pat Jr.'s best friend, Danny, who pops in and out from the mental hospital. I cared about this family and wanted them to overcome the obstacles they were facing because they're good, honest people who are written intelligently. While that seems simple enough on paper, it's still still astonishing how few movies in this genre seem to succeed at it.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when films nominated for all these awards have very little, if anything, to say about humanity. And it happens more than you'd think. This is exactly the type of project that's most difficult to execute well given just how much is dependent on finding that perfect balance in tone.The dance-off that closes the film is trickier to pull off than it looks, as is nearly everything else Russell does leading up to it. It can't be easy to choreograph dancing to look bad enough to be bad, yet just barely good enough to still be entertaining and funny. He takes a gigantic creative risk in the third act by embracing conventionality, but it pays off because he earned his way there and any other resolution would feel like a betrayal of the story and its characters.

There's no feeling like being in a theater with an audience wildly clapping and actually being on board with them for a change. After the credits rolled I was in a complete state of euphoria, literally wanting to run down the street telling everyone what I just saw. And that's coming from someone who's notoriously a tough sell on movies awash in optimism. But that's because they usually lie. Russell finds the way in, telling a brutally honest, relatable story that's just rough enough around the edges to leave an unforgettable impression. Silver Linings doesn't insult the audience with an easy solution, instead acknowledging life's difficulties in the most direct, unsentimental way imaginable. Raising the bar to an entirely new level for what's notoriously been the slightest of genres, it's that rare kind of film you can envision yourself constantly returning to with a different perspective.

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