Bradley Cooper, Cinema, Film, film reviews, J Law, Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence has such an incredibly amazing butt, Movie Reviews, Movies, nut cases, Oscar bait, Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook. David O. Russell
Silver Linings Playbook – Art 2/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5
After hearing about David O. Russell nearly engaging in a fistfight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings, and how a few of his projects had been held up in production hell for years, you might have thought his career as a capricious cineaste was over. Then, there was the 2010 working class ballad The Fighter, which threw Melissa Leo onto our television screens in every award ceremony as quickly as she was yanked off stage with a Vaudeville hook, and more importantly filled the hole in Russell’s resume since I Heart Huckabees. Now there’s this. Silver Linings Playbook is certainly a refreshing piece out of Hollywood, and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s performances may draw Oscar attention, but it is not a truly novel or powerful story when the grand mass of humanity and its artistic endeavors is counted, even solely in 2012.
As a matter of fact, narratively speaking, it’s entirely well-trod territory. Its hindrance in performing a normal rom-com story is what makes this one eminently interesting, though somewhat flawed. It’s shown or otherwise hinted that almost every character in the movie has mild to severe mental illness, yet we’re given every indication that this is a very normal story, and these people are living quite normal lives (how far is Coop’s crazy person situation from Jeff, Who Lives at Home?). We’re seeing normalcy with a few bumps, in other words. Russell’s attachment to this adaptation of Matthew Quick’s Philly-centric novel stems from his own son’s obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorders, but we may be seeing a bit of his personal feeling etched in the film’s bouts of rage. Was Bradley Cooper implicitly told he’s going to beat up George Clooney for motivation? We’ll never know!
Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man who is a signature of American modernity: completely fallen off the cliff, with the chains of psychological issues and one’s own past impeding his progress back to ‘normalcy’. And yet he’s utterly unwavering in his optimism that he can redeem and improve himself to a delusional fault, including an ill-fated quest at convincing his unfaithful ex-wife to take him back after his stint in a nuthouse. He was sent there as part of a court order after going apeshit when catching her and her paramour bumpin’ uglies in the shower. Pat suffers bipolar disorder, among other things. Mental illness lingers genetically from his parents: his father (Robert DeNiro) is an obsessive-compulsive superstitious Philadelphia Eagles fan; his mother (Australian actress Jacki Weaver) is a grand symbol of denial. A grown man, he’s released into the charge of his parents, and sets about his nebulous plan of redemption and returning to a harsh world, with a semi-positive outlook guided by silver linings in all the bad.
Although there are a number of fun, interesting, quality parts throughout, I’m afraid the single thing that makes this picture, and what makes it interesting -beyond its rom-comitude and its off-beat and comical depiction of mental illness- is the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In the pursuit of wooing his wife out of hiding, Coop has dinner with mutual friends, where he meets Tiffany (J Law), the sister-in-law of his pal, who is also a bit of a pill-poppin’ frank-talkin’ train wreck, and she suddenly takes a morbid, if not sado-masochistic interest in Coop as she (falsely) promises to help him get his wife back so long as he gives her attention. Tiffany is similarly exiled from adulthood to live in her parents’ home after a bout with severe grief in the wake of her husband’s death, which led to her becoming a self-destructive sex addict. Her character isn’t as ably explored as Coop’s, being a supporting love interest, but if you haven’t woken up to the fact that Lawrence is the best of the next generation of actresses after Winter’s Bone, this is your opportunity to be clued in.
Whatever mental illness we’re seeing, as it’s not quite clear (more on that below), Lawrence deftly emotes a sharp swivel between extreme self-confidence and rock bottom self-hatred demonstrated by women who suffer a few possible debilitating conditions. Lawrence is only given a short bit of string to work with here, but she weaves something similar to Charlize Theron’s and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performances as characters with critical disconnect between their ego and body, in Young Adult and Shame, respectively. Her character isn’t outwardly aggressive or egomaniacal, like those two, but rather she’s subject to surrendering her body or even her will to whomever, passive-aggressively holding the option to manipulate those around her who know her condition. Where the illness ends and the manipulator begins isn’t always easy to figure, and thanks to a lack of overall information, they might be one and the same.
Although the film’s premise of addressing mental illness is a worthy drama, its depiction is uneven, unsure of itself. You get the sense it isn’t even really on the front burner, and is rather an aspect instead of the primary cause. We see Cooper’s character steady or imbalanced more or less solely on whether he takes his meds. For all its concentration on psychological duress, its apparent desire, like that of the characters, is to be in just another podunk and boring suburban happy drama. The ending is on a narrative climax like any other in the genre which seeks to resolve the problems set forth – problems that are anything but easily resolved in real life.
This highly satisfying resolution is slightly sinister if we’ve been paying attention, in so far as we’re meant to be happy about deluded, manipulative, and imbalanced people seeking commiseration in each other’s arms in a 21st century form of “settling”. Would we be equally happy with a resolution where a substance abuser and someone with an eating disorder also find solace in each other’s fucked-upedness? Why it’s easy to feel happy in this narrative’s upswing is that we’re told the pills have helped Pat find a resolution, while Tiffany’s unknown diagnosis and medication is mostly elided for a stronger concentration on her dynamic and ‘beautifully tragic’ personality that dovetails an emotional white-out of smiles and family at the end.
David O. Russell’s films to date have been conventionally uninteresting flicks that gain interest by being largely devoid of the odd noisome or annoying cliche. But if you look hard enough, you’ll always find cliches, of course, and SLP is no exception. Lawrence’s beautiful tragedy wrapped up in a conflicted but peppy sex-addicted emotional wreck is in some ways, despite being grounded in clinical depression and volatility, still every red-blooded man’s fantasy: a coquette with a bit of dangerous spice (and a really, really nice ass, which Russell is kind enough to emphasize with plenty of J Law butt shots). We also have a variation on the mystical black man cliche, with Chris Tucker appearing in his first non-Rush Hour film in 15 years to be Coop’s affirmation buddy. Instead of wielding some magical powers, he’s simply an optimistic support whose patently cute loony bin escape attempts provide further comic relief. Neither of these big cliches are noisome or annoying for me; both eminently digestible.
The supporting acts in SLP are, in a word, outstanding. If you can afford DeNiro in a 3rd or 4th string role, it likely speaks to the quality of the project. This is the best effort I’ve seen out of him in years. I’ve always thought Chris Tucker to be a misunderstood and underused talent, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him yuckin’ it up without Jackie Chan around. Shea Whigman, fresh from the thunder in Boardwalk Empire, cuts another notch on his belt as his career in character acting has taken a well-earned thrust into the limelight lately. Jacki Weaver, with whom I’m otherwise unfamiliar, plays the film’s most subtle but genuine role as the least crazy person in a constellation of nutters.
What makes this flick so interesting is, if at moments you think Cooper and Lawrence’s characters are being too “normal”, you have to ask yourself a layered question similar to films about film: whether it’s the actor or the actor’s character acting well. My general feeling is that both Coop and J Law execute brilliantly here, but differently. Coop is more professional. He has a dozen or so years on Lawrence, after all. His interpretation is an intellectual process, while hers is intuitive or instinctual. He’s more Ralph Fiennes, she’s more Brando or Depp. Both will have a great future, but I’m beginning to suspect Lawrence will make history.