Friday, November 23, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook: A heart of gold

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for sexual candor, brief nudity and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.23.12

Mental illness isn’t funny, and — thankfully — Hollywood has matured past the point of believing otherwise; standard-issue “loony-bin comedies” have gone the way of lovable drunks. When cinema tackles the topic these days, it’s generally with warmth and compassion, as with (for example) Adam and The Soloist.

Although Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to help Pat (Bradley Cooper) win back his
ex-wife, this assistance comes at a price: Pat must agree to train with Tiffany for an
upcoming dance competition. Needless to say, this is not an endeavor with which
Pat feels comfortable...
But every individual’s life is equal parts hilarity and heartbreak, which also goes for people battling emotional disorders. The key is to craft a story that acknowledges but doesn’t exploit the situation, at which point we can comfortably laugh with, and not at, the characters; the marvelous Benny & Joon is an excellent example.

All of which brings us to Silver Linings Playbook, directed and scripted by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Flirting with Disaster), and based on Matthew Quick’s debut 2008 novel. Russell’s cinematic approach can be quite eclectic, and he has a tendency to drift toward the heightened wackiness of Wes Anderson, but with lesser results; happily, Russell mostly eschews such tendencies here.

At first blush, his approach to Silver Linings Playbook is as tense, jittery and nervous as its badly damaged protagonist, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), whom we meet as his mother (Jacki Weaver, as Dolores) checks him out of a state institution. The details emerge gradually; Pat’s eight-month stay resulted from a plea bargain that kept him out of jail after he came close to beating a man to death (with cause, it might be argued).

Pat has anger management issues, which is blindingly obvious from the moment we lay eyes on him. He grew up with undiagnosed bipolar mood swings, somehow holding things together long enough to finish school, obtain a teaching credential and marry ... but then the inner demons became too much.

Now, as we confront Pat’s manic ups and downs — Cooper so explosively forceful, so potential dangerous, that we can’t take our eyes off him — his mother’s optimistic decision to bring him home seems naïve, perhaps even hazardous. We sweat every scene, wondering if Pat will go off like a time bomb.

Pat is the worst-case scenario: perceptive enough to recognize that the meds that control his symptoms also diminish his ability to experience any joy. He’s required by law to take the meds — a condition of his release — but he doesn’t want to, because he knows that he loses himself. He prefers, as a result, to rely on a daily regimen of mental and physical exercise that seeks the “silver lining” in any given situation.

The “incident” eight months back destroyed his career and marriage, but Pat has spent that time believing that, given the right approach, he can win back his wife ... restraining order be damned. She always thought him overweight, ergo the constant jogging; he never read all the books she loved, so he’s staying up all hours and doing that now.

As we spend time with Pat and his parents, though, it becomes clear that the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is obsessive/compulsive to a degree that’s initially disturbing, manifesting itself in — among other things — perfectly aligned TV remotes and a handkerchief that he ceaselessly folds. Pat Sr. apparently has his own trouble with rage control, and has been banned from the stadium where his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play.

Watching televised games has, as a result, become so ritualized that Pat Sr. sets up various mental “totems” designed to ensure a victory, while Dolores faithfully serves up the same snacks. Worse yet, Pat Sr. is convinced that his son’s presence is essential to the establishment of “good juju,” a fixation that merely amplifies Pat’s own issues.

And, suddenly, as this fractured family drama plays out, on an average game day, we realize that we’re laughing ... because, yes, the situation is genuinely amusing. Pat’s difficulties aside, everybody recognizes, understands and even indulges in sports voodoo: mismatched socks, the slant of a cap, or the donning of a particular jersey.

Additionally, right about this moment — thanks to the finely shaded performances from Cooper and De Niro — Pat and his father turn out to be far more than the sum of their quirks and nervous tics. They become tragic figures, and therefore sympathetic, if not exactly warm. Their behavior becomes logical and predictable, although certainly not rational ... and that's when we safely identify with them.

At which point, Norman Bates’ classic line from Psycho comes to mind: “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

Russell pulls it off, coaxing performances that walk the fine, darkly comic line between ridicule and compassion.

Then the dynamic splinters even further, with the introduction of this saga’s final key player.

Pat’s elaborate scheme to woo back his wife involves winning over her best friend, Veronica (Julia Stiles), who is married to one of HIS good buddies (John Ortiz). But the last Pat knew, Veronica wanted no part of him; imagine his surprise, then, when she extends a dinner invitation to their home.

Enter Veronica’s younger sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a blunt, tart-tongued and similarly unstable young woman who has succumbed to grave depression following her own recent tragedy. Like Pat, Tiffany has been trying to manage the condition herself, with less than satisfying results.

We get a sense that Veronica must have thought that introducing Pat to Tiffany would be beneficial for both, but the narrative is a bit fuzzy on this point; indeed, we never get a bead on Veronica, which is a sad waste of Stiles’ talent. (Russell’s script is similarly sloppy when it comes to Pat’s older brother, who just sorta pops up at one point. We never get a handle on him, either.)

Oddly, inexplicably, Pat and Tiffany hit it off, in their own maladjusted way, and she strikes a devil’s bargain with him: She’ll help him send clandestine letters to his ex, if he’ll become her partner and train for an upcoming dance competition.

Say what?

By this point, though, Russell has pulled off his film’s biggest miracle: The story has become endearing, hilarious and, yes, still poignant and heartbreaking. All emotions are in play, and we’re wholly invested in these flawed but somehow engaging characters. Everything builds to an emotionally combustible encounter in Pat Sr. and Dolores’ living room, which is just as funny — and revealing — as the moment when Amy Adams takes on all of Mark Walhberg’s snarky sisters during a similar scene in The Fighter.

Cooper’s Pat remains the loose cannon, though, and we keep waiting for him to go off; I haven’t been this nervous since Anne Hathaway was given the microphone during the rehearsal dinner in Rachel Getting Married. It’s such an acting leap for Cooper, from the numbnuts fluff of The Hangover or The A-Team, or the emotionally barren (and wholly unbelievable) work he did in The Words a few months ago. Cooper makes “crazy” as memorably sympathetic as Jack Nicholson did, all the way back in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The question, of course, is whether Pat can escape his downward spiral.

Lawrence matches Cooper, scene for scene, giving Tiffany a ferocious, angry intensity that catches even Pat by surprise. Their “meet cute” moment during the aforementioned dinner is hilarious because of both characters’ bluntness, “chatting” at a level most of us never would dare stray. Lawrence is, as well, smolderingly sexual in a manner likely to surprise folks who know her only as Katniss, in The Hunger Games.

But whereas Cooper’s Pat does his best to conceal his peculiarities — and believes that he succeeds, which of course isn’t true — Lawrence’s Tiffany wears her vulnerability on her sleeve; she simply can’t help it. Grief flows from her agonized expressions, but then her own erratic self-defense mechanisms kick in; Pat calls it correctly when he admits to being damaged, but accuses her of deliberate cruelty.

De Niro, too often parodying his own best work these days, achieves his former glory with an equally nuanced, finely tuned performance as an emotionally barren father who desperately wants to reach out to his damaged son, but doesn’t know how.

Chris Tucker is quite memorable in a comic-relief supporting role as Danny, Pat’s best friend from the institution. Anupam Kher, an extraordinarily busy actor still well remembered as Parminder Nagra’s bemused and traditional father in Bend It Like Beckham, is similarly excellent as Pat’s somewhat unusual therapist.

Russell’s handling of Silver Linings Playbook is unorthodox; the crowd-pleasing tone of his third act is wildly at odds with the first act’s chaos and nerve-jangling stress. Given cinema’s limitations, we also aren’t allowed to eavesdrop on Pat’s inner thoughts, as is the case with Quick’s novel, where his protagonist can better justify his decisions and behavior.

But I’ll tolerate the uneven tone for the sake of these three key characters, each played so memorably by Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro. They may be driven apart — frequently — by their mood swings and erratic behavior, but they’re united by love: messy, ill-advised but no less authentic and heartwarming.

Silver Linings Playbook can be hard to embrace, for the first half-hour or so, but I promise you’ll be entranced from that point forward.

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