Sunday, January 06, 2013

Film Review: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, apart from having one of the most pointlessly awkward titles in recent memory, is in effect two separate films. On the one hand, it's a comedy-drama about two very pretty, slightly crazy people coming to know each other and maybe figuring out how to be better together, and on the other, a sports movie in which those characters have to train for a big competition. Neither of those two films is terrible by any means, but they are so clumsily grafted together that it winds up being the cinematic equivalent of a set of shelves that have been built without the use of a spirit level. It functions well enough, but everything is uneven to the detriment of the whole and to no discernible purpose.

Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man who has just spent eight months in a mental institution for nearly beating his wife's lover to death. Having served the court mandated length of time, he returns to his parents' (a barely awake Robert De Niro and a sorely under-used Jacki Weaver) house in Philadelphia intent on conquering his bipolar depression, getting his old job as a teacher back, and proving to his wife that he has got his life together so that they can reconcile. Pat has a new, relentlessly positive view on life based on the idea of chasing a silver lining in all situations, one that, thanks to Cooper's constantly intense expression, leaves him looking and sounding like Patrick Bateman on Prozac.

But beneath all the personal affirmation rhetoric, things are not so rosy for Pat. He refuses to take his meds because he views it as a sign of weakness, so he occasionally has manic episodes when he encounters something depressing, such as the ending of "A Farewell To Arms," or emotional loaded, such as Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour," which was the song that played at his wedding and when he caught his wife with another man. Since he is still on probation, these outbursts are something of problem, and Pat's preferred treatment of running doesn't do much to help.

This changes when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who is just as messed up as him, and the two quickly develop a half friendly, half flirtatious rapport. Pat's intrigued by Tiffany's disregard for social niceties and her openness about her sexuality, but he also comes to see her as a piece of his project to re-build and re-shape his life. If he demonstrates that he is capable of forming friendships with people and helping them, maybe his wife will realise that he has changed for the better. To that end, he agrees to take part in a dance contest that Tiffany has been training for, and which her dead husband never showed any interest in.

Most of the best scenes in Silver Linings Playbook are those in which Pat and Tiffany get to know each other. Whether they are talking over cereal or rehearsing dance moves, the chemistry between the two is undeniable, and both Cooper and Lawrence are great at quietly conveying how broken they both are, despite the fronts that they present to the world. The dance sequences, in particular, are really wonderfully choreographed, not because they're particularly good dancers - the film makes a point of noting that they aren't meant to be amazing, but merely talented novices - but because each illustrates something about the characters and their shifting relationship. Dance is a sensual activity, and Russell deftly uses it as a means of showing the growing attraction between the two in place of dialogue, and the film revels in their physicality, to both dramatic and comic effect. The dance contest itself is not especially important, but it provides a strong reason for the two to come together and gradually, painfully improve each other through mere dint of working on something as a team.

The problem with the film is that the dance contest doesn't remain unimportant, and in fact becomes the most important thing ever in the final third; a contest which not only has personal consequences for Pat and Tiffany, but which could have positively apocalyptic financial ramifications for their friends and family. It's not necessarily bad that the broader cast suddenly become more invested in something that previously only mattered to the main two, since at the very least it sets up a sweet moment between Pat and his father. The problem is the way in which it is handled; by having the entire cast in a single room shouting at each other and fitting a whole film's worth of exposition into two or three minutes. It feels forced and contrived in a way that the rest of the film completely isn't, and has all the subtlety of Kim Jong-Il announcing "Yes, a ticking clock!" at the beginning of the final act in Team America. Except here, the scene is so perfunctory and shoddy that it feels like it was dropped in from a much worse film. It's like a bad improv workshop that somehow wound up being left in.

It's almost as if the people involved didn't have faith that the central story was interesting enough, which it absolutely was, and felt the need to cram some importance in at the last second. It'd be as if, right before the final fight in Rocky, it was revealed that the outcome would determine whether or not Adrian would be murdered: the stakes are already high enough, raising them further makes the whole thing laughable, as well as over-stuffing a film already packed with story. Even though the rest of the film after that scene is really strong, with the contest itself being celebratory and life-affirming in a way that feels natural, the scene itself sticks out like a sore thumb. The film works much too hard to set up a pay off that would have come easily anyway.

For the most part, Silver Linings Playbook is very, very good. The two leads have real spark and bring their characters to brilliant, shimmering life, it has a nice selection of supporting actors who are perfectly fine (Chris Tucker, in particular, makes a big impression with barely any screen time) and the writing is lively, funny and has a spontaneous feel to it that is rare. But that one scene really is terrible, yet is so pivotal that it mars the whole experience. It's the exact opposite of a silver lining: a small, dreadful thing that ruins something good.

Grade: B-