Sunday, December 2, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Note to Reader: Three of my previous four reviews have all been too long to read enjoyably and too long to write sanely, so I’m going to make this one quite a bit shorter than the others, even though I’ve already used some of my words in this first, three-line-long sentence.

Silver Linings Playbook is not a comedy as the TV commercials would have you believe, but it’s not a drama either by any stretch of the imagination. It walks that terrifically difficult fine line of the comedy-drama, or the dramedy as I sometimes call it. And it does it about as perfectly as I think it could be done and as perfectly as I think I’ve ever seen it be done. It also turn out to be the single best romantic comedy of any type made since 1989. Yes, since When Harry Met Sally…, a film that I consider to be the best rom-com made since the early 1940s as far as I can tell. The technical elements are nothing to gawk at, and they needn’t have been, but they don’t flub up and detract from the story either. More importantly, the writing is brilliant, the direction is wonderfully caring without ever being sugary, and the acting is superb.

Outside of the big three elements, there really is nothing to speak of. There are no sweeping shots of battle scenes or gorgeous scenery, there are no magnificent explosions or chases, there are no extravagant costumes or period decorative touches. And as I said before, there shouldn’t be. This is a story in the now. A story about unlikely love, mental illness, and football. It didn’t call for anything spectacular in these departments, and all of the parties involved delivered the necessary pieces perfectly. No technical area was poorly done and neither was one overdone. The cinematography and soundtrack are the two standouts, however. Even without the vast panoramas or chase scenes, the camera moves as one would expect Bradley Cooper’s Pat’s mind to move: in a frenetic, oftentimes confused manner, flitting from one thing to another. The soundtrack, comprised of songs both old and new, both known and unknown, is fabulous, and every song rings true with the scene it plays on.

Silver Linings is David O. Russell’s sixth feature, with his previous work all being notable to some degree: Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I ♥ Huckabees, and The Fighter. Aside from The Fighter, Russell has written every single one. His adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name is simultaneously funny and serious without ever letting one writing style outweigh the other. He masterfully weaves the story with emotional assuredness and love without a single noticeable scene where something isn’t happening. This earnest care is astounding when compared to his great, satirical work on Three Kings. The screenplay deserves to, at least of now, win the Oscar.

His direction is just as impressive as his screenplay. He takes these characters, characters who have mental illnesses ranging from bipolar disorder to obsessive compulsive disorder to depression, and makes every single one of them important, makes every single one of their neurotic quirks a part of who they are without overdoing them and turning them into some sort of disgusting, sugar-coated, “feel-sorry-for-me” characteristics like so many movies have done (I Am Sam immediately comes to mind). On top of that, various scenes, many of them come one right after the other, are charged with very different, but not necessarily contrasting emotional palettes, but never does one of them come of wrong. Russell directs immense compassion and self-assuredness. Every scene is brilliantly composed and executed. Even the final sequences, the hardest part of a rom-com to pull off successfully, lead to an emotional payoff.

The movie is owned by three performances. Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano is the movie’s focus, and he delivers. His role on The Hangover showed his tremendous comedic timing, and here he shows his ability to combine comedy with drama. I don’t find mental illness performances impressive most of the time. Forrest Gump and Rain Man are both fine and I Am Sam is sometimes downright painful. Cooper is blessed with bipolar disorder instead of a developmental disability, but his achievement is no less impressive. Pat has violent mood swings and almost no social skills. He has several such mood swings during the film, and he makes every single one believable. His mood swing at the psychiatrist is especially fantastic and believable, even though the motivation for the outburst isn’t explained until afterward. He deserves an Oscar nomination for this down-to-earth portrayal of a man struggling whole-heartedly to help himself beat his problems.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany truly steals the show. Every one of her scenes is astonishing, either in her surprisingly perfect comedic timing, or in her believable rage, or in her forthrightness. She makes her strange form of depression hysterical without ever turning it into farce and she makes her dramatic moments true and powerful. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to completely succeed in a role that doesn’t involve roughing it in the forest and mountains. Her chemistry with Cooper is the best I’ve seen in any movie in years. Anything else I could say about her would not do her perfect performance justice, so I won’t say anything at all. I thought that finding a performance to beat Quvenzhané Wallis’ in Beasts of the Southern Wild was going to be nigh impossible, but Lawrence has done it, and I doubt anybody else with outdo her. She deserves to win the Oscar, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Robert De Niro’s Pat Solitano, Sr. is OCD and De Niro plays this to hysterical effect. He never goes over the top, however. His jaw-dropping performance in Raging Bull is one driven by violence and unstated mental illness. De Niro takes a vastly different approach here to a wholly different sickness. The screenplay has him do things to show his OCD, and he does them well, but he shows it even better when he’s doing things that were clearly of his own devising, little things that he never overplays. His love of Philadelphia Eagles football, while disgusting, is superbly done. De Niro hits every note just about perfectly.

Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, and especially John Ortiz and Anupam Kher are all great.

As of the last decade or two, the romantic comedy has gone the way of cliché. They resort to horrid dialogue and overused situations. Silver Linings bucks that trend completely, providing a fresh, heartwarming look at the modern rom-com and at the truth mental illness. It shows that we’re all insane; we either just don’t realize it or just don’t want to admit it. This one will only get better on repeat viewing. ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★.

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