Wednesday, January 23, 2013
You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.
Matthew Quick's novel is the ideal material for Russell to adapt to the screen. It's the story of Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), who, as the movie begins, is finishing an eight month court-ordered stay at a mental hospital after he assaulted the man he found in the shower with his estranged wife Nikki. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Pat is motivated and optimistic, but highly manic and obsessed with winning Nikki back. Pat moves back in with his mom (Jacki Weaver) and his Eagles-obsessed dad (Robert De Niro), who works as a bookie and watches each game with a long list of transparently obsessive-compulsive rituals. These early scenes of Pat spending time with family and old friends struck a nerve with me; while I don't have bipolar disorder, after my own stretch of therapy following the end of my marriage, I couldn't help seeing how nearly every sane person around me unconsciously exhibited mild signs of personality disorders or compulsive thinking. The way Silver Linings Playbook subtly comments on the experience of trying to get strong or develop a "strategy" only to realize that everyone is a little bit crazy is honest and wonderful. While it's not a hard-hitting drama about mental illness, I appreciate that, for a screwball comedy that could have just made Pat "movie crazy" to create an amusing backstory, the film actually takes Pat and his perspective seriously.
Pat's focus on winning back Nikki is thrown into chaos when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed young woman who lives in the neighborhood. Tiffany is, in some ways, as troubled as Pat, but she's also strong and self-determined, and she and Pat have an immediate emotional connection (they bond early on by listing the antidepressants they've tried). Tiffany reaches out to Pat, who retreats to the safety of his Nikki fixation, so Tiffany begins aggressively pursuing Pat (sometimes literally), basically tricking him into becoming her friend and growing as a person (that sounds creepy as I write it, but in the movie it's strangely romantic). I was afraid that Silver Linings Playbook would be one of those movies about how the redemptive power of love can conquer mental illness. Instead, it's something smarter and healthier, a movie not about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who heals a crazy, heartbroken guy, but rather a complicated female character with her own needs who cares enough about Pat to push him to heal himself.
It helps that the two leads have great chemistry. Cooper really surprised me - as he tends to play smug jerks, I didn't know he was capable of the openness and vulnerability he reveals here. And Lawrence is so great that I stopped wondering whether Tiffany got married in high school after about ten minutes. Tiffany tells Pat that "There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself," and it’s a great credit to Lawrence that you believe her. There's a scene late in the movie where Tiffany challenges Pat Sr.'s assertion that her friendship with Pat Jr. is ruining the Eagles' "juju," and the 22-year-old actress not only holds her own against De Niro but actually steals the scene from him. De Niro, incidentially, is both very funny and often moving; this is the strongest material he's had in years, and it's a much-needed reminder that he's still capable of greatness.
As I said at the top, Silver Linings Playbook sometimes stumbles into cartoonish moments (Julia Styles' one-dimensional housewife character belongs in a much broader film) and transparent plot devices. Chris Tucker, as Pat's friend from the hospital, shows up implausibly whenever the story requires it (although it's nice to see Tucker onscreen again), as does the police officer (Dash Mihok) assigned to Pat's case, who seemingly puts in massive amounts of overtime. Despite this, the movie works, and it often works best when it gives itself over to the contrivances of romantic comedy. The second half of the movie revolves around Tiffany and Pat's preparation for a dance competition, of all things. It should be a disaster, but I ended up believing in it because Russell and his actors so clearly believe in it. When the movie becomes disarmingly romantic, it reminds that all the cliches we've become used to - a character running frantically after the object of his affection, a swirling camera around a long-delayed first kiss - still have the power to move us if the filmmaker believes in the moment. I'm not saying that Silver Linings Playbook is a perfect movie, and I completely understand why what was moving to me might be grating to others. But when the movie cut to black, Jen (who met me when I was pulling things back together and was just the friend I needed) gave me a big, long hug until the lights went up. It doesn't get any better than that.