Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

With his two most recent films (2010's THE FIGHTER and last year's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), writer/director David O. Russell has taken a couple of cinema's most worn genres, respectively, the boxing drama and romantic comedy, and refashioned them into something quirky and even exciting in certain privileged moments. A jangly, infectiously nervous energy that owes much to the editing, yes, but also to an artist who breathlessly tells familiar stories in somewhat unfamiliar ways. So paradoxical; focused yet so very caffeinated Russell has been lately. Very much like his latest protagonist.

Consider the early scenes in ... PLAYBOOK. A frantic collage of imagery, an utter impatience with exposition. Introductions to main characters Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a man who suffers from bipolar disorder, his bookmaker father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a local widow and recovering sex addict, are quick and economical. Scenes are short. Dialogue bursts like gunfire. Flashbacks are used but do not disrupt the rhythm.  After the first 20 minutes or so, I felt as if Russell was evoking the great comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Screwball, but spiced with potent drama.  Tough mix, handled expertly.

Pat. Jr., a former Philadelphia schoolteacher,  has just been released from an eight month stint of psychiatric care. Once home, he learns that his wife Nikki had meanwhile issued a restraining order against him after he nearly killed her lover (a colleague of Jr's at school) when he finds them in the shower. A painful scene, all the moreso as their wedding song, Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" is playing when he catches them. That song will forever be a bane to Jr's efforts to rehabilitate, to eschew medication, and seek the "silver lining" in life. For example, witness Jr's reaction when it plays in his therapist's waiting room.

One night, Pat Jr. attends a dinner at his friend's house, and there's Tiffany, sister of his friend's wife.  In mere seconds of screen time, 22-year old Lawrence entirely conveys a possible insanity, a wild streak in her character that she likewise recognizes in Pat. It's clear where this is all going, and that ain't no spoiler if you've seen any movies at all. But as they say, the destination isn't the thing, but rather the journey.

On that journey are several chances for the actors to perfect their chemistry.  It's great fun to watch them interact. Tiffany always seems to know when Pat jogs down her street and constantly pokes his psyche. She likes him, even offering herself to him one night, but Pat Jr. is only interested in reconciling with his wife - it is what drives his search for the silver lining. As Tiffany sees Nikki socially on occasion, Pat sees an opportunity to communicate. He writes a letter to her, which Tiffany agrees to pass along if Pat will be her dance partner in a local contest.

Meanwhile, Pat Sr. is shown to be a broken man who has lost his job and now makes his livelihood as a bookie. But he's loving, vulnerable, craving time with his son. His best efforts are always through fanaticism for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Sr. is also deeply superstitious, feeling that if his son doesn't sit and watch the game with him, they'll surely lose. Dad has to watch the games at home as he has been banned from the stadium for fighting. To wit, in an effective early scene, father and son come to blows after Jr. has a late night episode. What of this gene pool?

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which, like many of Alexander Payne's films, maintains a kooky tone throughout, filled with uproarious moments, though enriched with a seriousness and sobering take on mental illness.  The director's brother is bipolar, and Russell has stated that this film (based on a novel by Mathew Quick) would not have come from his hands otherwise. Does that mean that the depictions of errant behavior from the leads are steeped in realism? I have known a few people I suspected where bipolar but I did not know for sure.  Such characters are serious bait for actors - the chances to bring down the walls are numerous; the sort of thing Oscar loves. I never once felt Cooper, who's often remarkable in his portrayal, was playing to the audience.

The entire cast is marvelous. De Niro has been playing the "dad" for well over a decade but this is finally a film worthy of his talents, a role that doesn't just feel like a mortgage payment. I really liked his work here. Lawrence, best known for HUNGER GAMES plays the familiar young sass whose causticism is of course a front for a wounded soul; she plays it beautifully.  Chris Tucker pops in a few times as Pat Jr.'s buddy from the mental facility; the running gag: every time he shows up, he claims to have been released, only to have some official arrive to bring him back. Julia Stiles, looking much older than she is,  hilariously plays suburban matron Veronica, Tiffany's sister. Jacki Weaver is quiet strength as Dolores, Pat Jr's mother.

Russell has produced another fine movie, filled with his usual good taste in music (aforementioned Stevie, as well as key scenes set to tracks by Led Zeppelin and Dave Brubeck) and off kilter sensibility. His earlier films were more inventive and unpredictable in their screenplays, but SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER before it are also refreshingly offbeat studies of disparate characters, families seemingly broken beyond repair who find a way (circuitously, perhaps) to mend their bonds. These two most recent films have hearts as large as the snark is deep. With SILVER LININGS, I've found that rare rom-com that doesn't make me nauseous. 

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