Thursday, December 13, 2012

Love: Silver Linings Playbook

I got in a conversation with someone a few weeks back that consisted, mostly, of her complaining about the lack of comedy recognition come awards season.  She's right, of course. We tend to take comedy for granted, though it's something most of us know from experience is very difficult to manage.  The Oscars, certainly, are guilty of maligning any number of ballsy comedic performances, and when the stakes come down to a question of whether to recognize a harrowing dramatic role vs. a masterful exercise in comic timing, there's little question on who the victor will be.  For a comedy to sneak successfully into the awards lineup it needs to hit us with pathos, but veer away from sloppy melodrama.  Its characters need to be comically human, suffering but sparkling, drawing attention to some simple truth in a way that makes us side - laughing- with them.  Annie Hall and Little Miss Sunshine stand as comedies that have managed this balance best, and  Silver Linings Playbook can be added to their ranks. It's a film that doesn't hit us while we're down, that opts to ignore deep dramatic turns, and which keeps us laughing.   
Silver Linings Playbook runs as a sibling to David O. Russell's last feature, The Fighter.  The Fighter had a bubbling comic energy just at its surface in the form of the Ward family, but was plagued by the truths of circumstance.  The truth behind the adaptation dictated that we had to go through some tough times with Dicky, that things had to be a little sad, a little desperate.  In Silver Linings, the potential to run that route rears up time and again.  Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been checked out of a mental institution, after all, and he suffers from the bipolar bouts of rage that sent his now ex-wife's lover into the hospital.  He's your prototypical loose cannon, and his complete lack of a filter opens up avenues of anxiety and argument at nearly every turn.  Pat's re-acclimating to society at his parents' house in the Philadelphia suburbs.  His father (Robert De Niro) is a rabid, superstitious Eagles fan and his mother (Jacki Weaver) is a nervous sounding woman who preps snacks on game days and quietly defies her husband's wishes.  Russell shines in this regional milieu, and he does for Pennsylvania what he did for Massachusetts, exploring the colorful personalities of so-called regular folk in a way that feels honest, loving, and accurate.  This is the best performance we've gotten from De Niro in a long while.  He's devoted, playing to and against type simultaneously to become a dimensional caricature of your own sports-addled uncle.  It's also, of course, a real star turn for Bradley Cooper, who here manages to solidly break away from playing pompous, pretty boy assholes to play an unwitting, well-meaning jerk of a different color.
Cooper plays Pat with just an aura of crazy. His voice is modulated and friendly, but drifts towards emphatic hyperactivity the moment he gets riled.  He's ever-so-slightly frightening, his face just dead enough to make us want to avoid him on a crowded street.  Pat's return home is a source of neighborhood curiosity, and this is the kind of place where a kid repeatedly returns to the front door asking if he can interview Pat for a project on mental illness.  In spite of this, Pat has a plan. He's latched onto some motivational psycho-babble about silver linings and believes, insistently, that everything has one.  He's going to find them, he's going to get his wife back. He's going to read all the books on her high school teaching syllabus, show her he's a reformed man, and bring her back.  In trying to get his life together, Pat connects with an aggressive, recently widowed neighborhood girl named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a match for his own socially inept behavior. Lawrence, of course, has already proven herself as an actress, and here she's a paradoxical blend of immature maturity; tough, harsh, and kicking violently against life even as she's oddly innocent. Tiffany promises to help Pat reach his goal, on one very big condition: he dances as her partner in a ballroom competition.  It's this sort of strange, ebullient turn that makes the film really work as a comedy.  The steps along the way are open, always, to rapid backsliding. It would be so easy for Pat to mess up, to wind up checked back into the mental institution, to have his aging parents suffer any number of ailments, to situate him miserably on top of a pile of wreckage.  That said, it would be equally easy for the film to turn towards saccharine, seasonal hope, for full-cycle redemption to take place or for precious miracles to permeate the darkness in some sort of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close bit of emotional pornography.
Silver Linings manages to resist that impulse just enough.  It's a bit sweet, sure, but it's tough to call it precious. That said, some already have.  Since checking the film out a couple weeks back, I've stumbled across a few comments to the same effect: there's a tonal shift towards the end; [spoiler alert] the wrap-up is too easy, are we supposed to believe that Pat has undergone a magical recovery? Is this a romantic comedy? What are we supposed to take from this?  My advice? Take it at face value.  To an extent, Silver Linings Playbook is indeed a romantic comedy, and what's wrong with that?  Russell has given us a smartly scripted, brilliantly cast, relentlessly funny, "feel good movie" without the guilty calories of schmaltz, cheese, and lite fm pop music Hollywood tries to shovel down our throats on a regular basis.  Silver Linings is an unquestionably successful comedy in a season of otherwise dour affairs.  Can't see the bright side in that?  That's your own damn problem.

1 comment:

  1. Consistently engaging, funny, and touching. This is the kind of picture in which two hours of running time whiz by in a flash.


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