Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

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The season's upon us, folks! Awards season, that is. Just as late spring and early summer, the time from May Day to early August, is when the studios bring out their biggest, baddest action blockbusters, late fall is when they release blockbusters on the other end of the spectrum, showcases of acting, screenwriting, inspiration, and messages designed to impress the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Starting on the film festival circuit and arthouse theaters in New York and Los Angeles in the last two months of the year, these films are expanded to wide release in January and February as the nominations are locked in and the awards race commences. (It is for this reason that new releases in January and February, those not being expanded from limited release the prior year, tend to be unmitigated garbage more often than not.)

This year, few films (save for Lincoln) are getting more award buzz than Silver Linings Playbook, the latest from David O. Russell and the Weinsteins' chief hope for Oscar glory this year. A romantic dramedy about mental illness sounds like prime Oscar material (overcoming adversity -- the Academy loves that!), and most critical reviews have had little but praise for it. However, I went in with tempered expectations, not least because Bob Chipman, a critic whose judgment I normally trust, was one of the few who wasn't totally enamored with this film. In fact, his thoughts on it were quite scathing, calling it a formulaic indie rom-com in the mold of Garden State with the added insult of having it a message that came off to him as "a good manic pixie dream girl can cure mental illness."

Well, I dunno what movie Bob was watching, because when I walked out of the theater, I was smiling from ear to ear. This is a outstanding movie both as a romantic comedy and an exploration of mental illness, one that I hope stands the test of time and is remembered as one of the great films of the early 2010s.

Let's start with the cast. Bradley Cooper plays Patrick, a man who was just released from an eight-month stint in a psychiatric hospital after brutally beating the man who he caught having sex with his wife Nikki and is now trying to reconnect with her in spite of a restraining order. Now, I have known somebody who was bipolar, and somebody I am very close to has known that person intimately. For the sake of privacy, I will not say who, but suffice it to say I know what bipolar disorder is like and isn't like. Whenever Cooper was on-screen, I bought him as bipolar. His illness didn't come off as "inspirational" award bait, it felt real. While some of his episodes can be humorous, it is clearly ruining Patrick's life, with him waking his parents in the middle of the night to rant about inane bullshit, and unable to listen to Stevie Wonder ("My Cherie Amour" was playing when he walked in on his wife) without flipping out. I was constantly afraid that Patrick would swing into another episode and dig himself deeper.

No less mesmerizing is Jennifer Lawrence as Patrick's reluctant girlfriend Tiffany, a young widow who turned to casual sex to get over her grief, and was fired for sleeping with most of her co-workers. Tiffany is far from the stereotype of the "manic pixie dream girl", that bubbly, spontaneous, vivacious invention of lonely male Hollywood screenwriters who exists solely to break the male protagonist out of his shell and get him to enjoy life. Tiffany is the anti-pixie, connecting with Patrick not through spontaneity (the last thing you want to inject into the life of someone who's mentally ill), but through providing structure to his life, getting him invested in the dance competition she's in. Cooper and Lawrence have amazing chemistry, united by their characters' shared neuroses and overcoming the fifteen-and-a-half-year age gap between them (Cooper is 38, Lawrence is 22, and yet I wasn't creeped out).

The supporting cast also shines here. Robert De Niro's superstitious, OCD Eagles fanatic father Pat Sr., a man who has turned to football bookmaking to raise money to open a restaurant, reminded me of many suburban dads I'd known when I was a teenager. His quirky irrationality, particularly the idea that he needs Patrick Jr. at his side watching the game for the Eagles to do well, is charming, but it also negatively affects his ability to interact with others, landing him deep in debt with his gambling buddy. Chris Tucker also shows up as Danny, Patrick's friend from the psychiatric hospital who is constantly scheming to escape. While a small role, he steals the show in most of the scenes he's in. Tucker is a funny guy, and it's a shame that he largely stopped acting after Rush Hour; he could've been as big a star as any otherwise.

Good performances can only get a film so far, though, and that's where David O. Russell comes in. Writing and directing the film (an adaptation of Matthew Quick's book), Russell makes suburban Philadelphia as much a character in the film as its leads, much as he did Massachusetts in The Fighter. Having grown up just one state over from Pennsylvania and been to many suburbs and diners that look exactly like the ones in this film, I fully bought that environment. It was like a trip home again for me. His skilled hand applies just as much to his human characters, making them quirky and interesting without forgetting that this lovable quirkiness is rooted in some serious problems. He makes this film a joy to watch, investing us in the setting and the characters, making their journey to overcome their problems feel natural.

Score: 5 out of 5

Silver Linings Playbook deserves all of the nominations that it has received. It's both a deft exploration of mental illness and a great romantic comedy that scores a solid touchdown. See it.

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