Sunday, November 25, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Love in the Time of Bipolar Disorder

The single-most pivotal element in crafting the fabled 'good rom-com' is so simple it's a real wonder so many films from the genre have failed so spectacularly to get it right: likeable or, at the very least, interesting protagonists. It also helps if they are, you know, funny, but when the characters are one-dimensional, ignorant or obnoxious, how are we expected to root for them to romantically connect? Most Hollywood screenwriters can't seem to grasp this simple fact, and continue casting Katherine Heigl. David O. Russell's Silver Lining Playbook, however, understands that an intriguing central couple can allow us to at least partially forgive the film falling victim to some of the genre's other pratfalls.

In Bradley Cooper as Pat and Jennifer Lawerence as Tiffany Russell has discovered a fascinating and refreshing romantic dynamic. Neither is 'perfect': they're both struggling with serious trauma and mental illness. We meet Pat as he's being checked out of a psychiatric institution by his mother Dolores (Jackie Weaver). He's been committed after an 'incident' involving his ex-wife and a subsequent bipolar diagnosis, and Pat is determined to make things right as he moves back into his parent's house. His obsessive compulsive father - Robert De Niro, granted a modestly meaty role after near-decades of wasted talent - has recently been made redundant and is running a bookmaking ring until he can save up to open a restaurant. At a friends house one evening, Pat is introduced to fiery Tiffany, who is suffering from depression following the death of her police officer husband. Tiffany wastes no time in her wooing of Pat, but he is committed to his estranged wife and resists her sexual advances. However, he also recongises the benefits of a friendship with Tiffany, and accepts her odd offer to deliver a letter to his wife (I forgot to mention the restraining order). Only one condition: he has to be her partner in a dance competition in exchange for her help in winning back his beloved spouse.

No prizes for guessing how all this ends, even if there are some interesting plot complications along the road to inevitability. Silver Lining Playbook's most significant problem is indeed its third act adherence to formula, even if it does have a sense of humour and self-awareness about proceedings. The various mechanisms of the plot ensure Tiffany and Pat only need to achieve a mediocre score in the competition, leading to some amusing moments during the film's climax. Still, is there anything that shouts 'bad rom-com!' louder than a dance-off where the stakes are unreasonably high? 

Luckily, said formulaic conclusion comes after well over an hour of genuinely compelling and thoughtful character work. In the hands of a lesser director, the portrayal of the film's mentally unstable characters could potentially have been problematic and exploitative. Not so with Russell. It's a moderately amusing film, but the characters are never taken advantage of. Instead, we're allowed to observe characters facing very real and occasionally debilitating obstacles, both internal and external. It's sometimes subtle, sometimes broad, but this is a smart, affecting portrayal of mental illness within the confines of a genre pic. Act three conveniently and unconvincingly ties everything up - this is Hollywood, after all - but the film cannot be accused of laziness during its consistently strong opening hour and an half.

Much has been written of Jennifer Lawerence in the last few years, and this is the first time since Winter's Bone that she's allowed to commit to a truly interesting character worthy of her youthful energy (although she was easily the best thing about The Hunger Games). She has a wonderfully charismatic and sassy screen presence, most notably during the film's best scene - an emotionally-powerful yet very funny sequence in which Tiffany effortlessly dominates everyone else in Pat's living room. Considering the room is occupied by veterans like De Niro, Weaver and Shea Whigham, Lawerence's acting superiority is all the more impressive. Cooper cannot hope to counter such a forceful performance, but he tries his hardest. He impresses most during scenes of instability, as Pat is unable to restrain his anger or uncomfortableness, oftentimes due to the inconsiderate actions of others. The film has plenty of funny sequences (Pat ranting about the pessimistic conclusion of an Ernest Hemingway novel) but also several poignant and sobering ones.

Some of the supporting cast are admirably allowed time to ensure their characters are more than mere stereotypes - Anupam Kher as Pat's psychatrist is an amusingly apathetic counterpoint to any number of overly inspirational cinematic doctors, while De Niro is the best he's been in years (faint, faint praise, granted). Others - Jackie Weaver, Chris Tucker and Julia Stiles particularly - don't have much to do. There's probably an argument there's a couple too many subplots vying for attention. It's therefore undoubtedly the very believable relationship that forms between Pat and Tiffany that is the film's strongest asset. You genuinely want these two tortured souls to get together, even if the delivery of the happy ending as is perhaps wasn't the single-most elegant way of achieving that.

David O. Russell has yet to evolve into a great director, but he is a rock solid and playful storyteller. The soundtrack - combining existing tracks with new Danny Elfman contributions - cleverly fluctuates in tone depending on the mood of the characters. However, we could probably have done without the distracting crash zooms that occur every so often (other than that, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's camerawork is unobtrusive but also perhaps unambitious). The film's shortcomings are mostly forgotten when the film is on form - and for at least eighty or ninety minutes, Silver Linings Playbook is the perfect antidote to the symptoms that tend to plague mainstream romantic comedies. It doesn't nail the ending, but the film's successes ultimately outweigh the lapses in quality.

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