Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 21, 2013

Director Report Card: David O. Russell (2012)

7. Silver Linings Playbook

While watching “Silver Linings Playbook,” a very obvious fact occurred to me for the first time. The majority of David O. Russell’s films, with maybe the exception of “Three Kings” and possibly “I Heart Huckabees,” are about family. (And you can make the case for those two.) In retrospect, this is fairly obvious. More over, the director seems particularly obsessed with dysfunctional families. Whither it be the incestuous angst of “Spanking the Monkey,” the desperate desire for familial acceptance in “Flirting with Disaster,” or the petty in-fighting, guilt, complication, and ultimate acceptance of “The Fighter,” David O. Russell is singularly focused on how mentally unbalanced people are stringed together by their blood. “Silver Linings Playbook” is about a bunch of different stuff but family looms large over the majority of the story.

It’s also about mental health. Pat has just ended a stint in a mental hospital after brutally beating his philandering wife’s lover. It’s been eight months but he is convinced the marriage isn’t over, obsesses over his ex-wife despite a restraining order, and is determined to win her back. He starts the movie out on a hugely positive streak, running, smiling, constantly talking about how every situation has a silver lining, repeating his catch phrase of “Excelsior!” That night the first crack in his façade of mental health show when throws a copy of "A Farewell to Arms" out the window and wakes his parents up at four o’clock in the morning, swearing and screaming about the downer ending. Pat is bipolar and the film portrays the condition accurately, with the character fluctuating between high highs and low lows, living much of his life in a mildly depressed medium. He’s constantly trying to improve his life but numerous freak-outs over the course of the film show that he was let out of the institution much too early.

Mental illness hardly makes Pat stand out among his friends and families. His father, played by Robert DeNiro displaying some passion and interest for the first time in decades, is slightly OCD and deeply superstitious, displaying a number of quirks while watching football games, his primary passion. Ronny, a close friend of Pat’s, puts on a happy face for his wife but the stress of a new baby, refurnishing his home, and his marriage in general is secretly shaking him apart. Most important to the film is Tiffany, Ronnie’s sister-in-law, played by Jennifer Lawrence. A recent widow, Tiffany has worked through a period of depression and promiscuity, and like Pat, is working hard to get her life back together.

Tiffany is indicative of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. She is prone to launching into somewhat long-winded speeches that spell out other character’s flaws. She has a quirky streak especially when ambushing Pat on his runs on a daily basis. She seems awfully preoccupied with bringing an unhealthy man out of his shell, in this case by involving him in a dance contest. It’s tempting to shout “Manic Pixie Dream Girl!” Truthfully, the character doesn’t totally resist the label, especially in scenes later in the film where she pulls obscure facts out of thin air. Yet, at the same time, the movie is frank about her flaws. Her quirks aren’t overly precious or meant just to endear her to the audience. Like pretty much everyone in the film, she’s got problems. Lawrence commits fully to the material, filling her role believably, frequently being quite funny, even if she can’t sell some of her dialogue. And, for the record, the tights she wears during the dance sequences don’t do her any disservice.

The cast is what mostly carries the film. The part of Pat was obviously written for Mark Wahlberg. When you can so clearly hear the dialogue coming out of his mouth, I don’t know why Russell cast someone else. (Maybe Wahlberg’s Boston accent would have been too distracting in the Philadelphia setting.) Bradley Cooper does well in the part, successfully expanding past his pretty bog image. He’s actually overdressed for most of the movie. The handful of scenes of him loosing it allow Cooper to show some depth as an actor. He doesn’t overplay it. (The movie doesn’t earn any points for just kind of brushing over the character’s sexism though.) His best scene comes when the character quietly, kindly dissuades one of Tiffany's would-be beaus from her doorstep. The chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence, what the movie is really built on, generally works. Those early going scenes are a bit rough but, as you watch the film, you start to feel a connection between them.

After so many years of forgettable tough-guy parts, it’s nice to see DeNiro indulge in his neurotic side. The best scene for Bob comes at the end of the second act, when the emotional, upset father starts to cruelly berate his son. The scenes of family bickering reminded me a lot of “The Fighter,” though they’re less shrill. I’m not sure why Jacki Weaver got a best supporting actress nod. She doesn’t have very much to do, mostly sticks to “worried mom” mode, and only varies from that a few times. I much preferred John Ortiz as Ronnie, who sells his much more quiet mental breakdown with a huge amount of humor and subtly. In maybe the most unexpected performances of the year, a visibly older Chris Tucker has a small though strong supporting part as a frequently escaping sanitarium patient. I’ve only previous known Tucker for broad schtick so to see him give such a down-to-earth, relaxed, honest performance is kind of mind-blowing.

It took some time for me to warm up to the film. The first act, with its expected scenes of Pat readjusting to life with his parents and visiting a shrink, feel very constructed. It’s no fault of the performers, who mostly elevated the somewhat routine material. As I said earlier, the romance between Pat and Tiffany at first seems unconvincing. It’s not until their first “date,” a frank scene where Tiffany openly discusses her sexual history, that the movie started to pull me in. After that, the various montages of their dance sessions together, though totally cliched, are effortlessly charming and likable. You really start rooting for these kids somewhere around the hour mark. Simple scenes of Cooper and Lawrence dancing together are the highlight of the movie.

Even then, I’ve got some complaints. The big dramatic plot moment at the end of the second act, a fight outside a football stadium, feels badly contrived. It’s pops out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly, an obvious plot mechanism if I’ve seen one. The drama of the finale similarly feels somewhat engineered. In-between a major plot reveal concerning Pat’s parents being brushed aside and Tiffany’s sad-sack attempts to fall back into bad habits, it’s so obvious the screenwriters were raising the stakes for the climax. A plot twist concerning a letter is obvious from the beginning. The movie not-too blatantly rips off “Lost in Translation” by leaving a whispered message unheard. The resolution is perhaps too clean cut, especially considering the character’s known mental problems. Despite the super happy ending, you can foresee issues arising for the characters in the future.

And yet… It almost doesn’t matter. The big dance-off climax is so fucking joyous, so infectiously fun. The actors and the screenplay meet half-way, creating lovable characters that you want to see succeed and be happy. Despite a few obvious contrivances, the movie feels surprisingly life-like, without any of the surreal exaggeration or over-the-top melodrama of the director’s previous films. Russell’s direction is stylish without being intrusive. I especially like a POV shot during a key flashback. Danny Elfman contributes one of his best scores in a while, totally devoid of jaunty tubas or Burton-esque woodwinds. I liked “Silver Linings Playbook” and it might be one of the most agreeable crowd-pleaser in recent memory. Taking that into account, it’s numerous Oscar nominations aren’t surprising at all. [Grade: B+]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

Bret Easton Ellis sure liked it. In between tweeting his insane opinions on other movies.