Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

There is, indeed, a silver lining to David O. Russell's latest, a romantic screwball comedy fairy tale, which won the Audience Award at this years Toronto Film Festival, and is being packaged as the feel good confection primed for awards goodwill courtesy of Harvey Weinstein.  Adapted from Matthew Quick's novel, Silver Linings Playbook follows The Fighter as O'Russell's return from movie jail and again showcases a sprawling family dynamic presented in a seemingly gritty version of reality.  Just like The Fighter, his latest is a true ensemble effort, and much of the fascination of the film revolves around the disparate acting styles stewed around.  It's interesting the course of David O. Russell, who started as an idiosyncratic maker of comedic chaos in the same age of the Wes Andersons and Spike Jonzes, whose fail from grace was spawned by less than gracious movie set behavior (that unfortunately went viral) and the less than stellar reception to his joyously nutty 2004 existential romp I Heart Huckabees, only to have rebounded as a sharp (and seemingly refined) director for hire.  And while Silver Linings Playbook on the outset reminds a glimmer of the wacky and disjointed free associative messiness of I Heart Huckabees, it's really more of finely greased machine charting its course to happily ever after, with occasional of the road pit-stops along the way.  Which isn't to say that for a film whose audience manipulation is fully soaked in, is without its pleasures.  They are abundant.

We first meet Pat (Bradley Cooper), a manic depressant being released into the care of the his family.  Hospitalized after a nearly killing the man who was his wife was having an affair with, he's attempting to prove to her, and himself that he can overcome his anger and issues.  Instilled with a new found sense of positivity and optimism, Pat's mission is clear: to win back his estranged wife, restraining order be damned.  Coming home to his Eagles-loving, superstitious father (Robert De Niro) and pleasingly motherly mom Dolores (Jackie Weaver), O'Russell pins down in seconds (a perhaps a bit too on the nose) that the apple doesn't fall to far from the tree.  Right off there's a nuanced and manic energy with bits of overlapping dialogue-- all crisp and quick that fuses a nearly schizophrenic sensibility to Silver Linings Playbook.  The film is centered around messy people and their messy, nearly debilitating neuroses, but there's such a wittily screwball joie de vivre to the writing and the performances that at times the whole thing nearly erupts with frothiness.  If it works, and I'm not entirely sure it does exactly, the reason may be that the Silver Linings is so quick, that the contrivances, the problems, the messiness and the short segments of intensity move about so fast-- possibly afraid to linger-- that the audience has to keep up, and let go.  Perhaps just as do the characters.

Cooper himself is magnetic in a performance that suits the actors quick speech and temperament.  Pat is a difficult character to like, and as he says, he has no filter, and is just taking the truth.  He may just be an asshole too.  Known for the overgrown frat guy dude from The Hangover films, this feels like his first real movie star performance, and he ably anchors the films messier and more finely calibrated scenes with a dignity that's truthful to Pats mental illness, but charming enough to cater to the romantic comedy whims Silver Linings ultimately becomes.  He meets his match in Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a troubled young widow.  Acid tongued and accepting of the dirty, messed up things about herself, she challenges Pat, just as she becomes drawn to him.  After an awkward meet-cute set up, Tiffany begins to follow Pat around on his neighborhood jogs-- he's trying to firm up to impress his wife, who complained of such things (he wears a trash bag over his sweats, for oddball comedic effect)-- and the two when they aren't fighting over who's crazier, develop a cutely jagged rapport.  Tiffany, as the plot must dictate, is an acquaintance of Pat's wife and a truce is introduced that she will help him out in exchange for a dancing partner.  Tiffany uses dance as therapy and needs one, you see, for an upcoming dance contest.

Lawrence is nearly revelatory as Tiffany.  First off, it's in the stark contrast of her work in Winter's Bone and this year's blockbuster The Hunger Games, but mostly because of her fresh take on a character that could have read as nutty pixie girl next door, or worse yet, a muse of which to free her messed up man.  Instead she showcases a steadfastness, an intelligent and a vigor that changes the film and provides it with its real silver lining.  Even the caveat that Tiffany often works as a cipher for the film's encoded messaging is itself put aside because of her charm, comedic beats and timing.  It's in her daffy, often profane flirtiness and pent up exasperation that highlight the film and while the film, about depressed mentally unfit people, may never really have the guts to fully explore the mania of love itself, Lawrence's tight and energetic performance comes the closes without even seeming like caricature.  

The best moments of Silver Linings are where the words and language of its loud characters all come together and there's a lovely bit of controlled chaos that evolves as all the disparate parts and characters come together and tie it all up.  The way it gets tied up is all movie fantasy, nearly sitcom-like in its reduction, but it almost doesn't matter because the characters and the performances have at this point, ingratiated themselves strongly enough that the emotion feels earned.  That is until you move back and truly to start to think about it.  For a film that flirts with honest exploration with real human malaise, it's main quest is really just to have a good time.  B+

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