Thursday, December 20, 2012

Born Again: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Phil Dyess-Nugent, to our group.

Soap opera fans have a term – SORAS (for “Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome”) – to describe the process by which a child character who’s too young to have a very dramatic romantic life may be sent away to boarding school or summer camp, disappear from the show for a while, and then return, suddenly being played by a 24-year-old actor. Following the careers of some movie actresses, it’s easy to get the feeling that there’s been an outbreak of SORAS in Hollywood. Actresses who make a strong impression as children – Christina Ricci, Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman – may turn into leggy, intimidatingly sultry-eyed sirens, with a speed that could snap your neck. In some cases, as with Ricci, they may go from seeming eerily mature and self-assured at eleven to working hard to not overwhelm male actors who fit in all too well in a movie culture where guys can extend their boyhood into their fifties. Jennifer Lawrence was already twenty when she starred in Winter’s Bone in 2010, but there, as in this year’s mainstream hit The Hunger Games, she projected a flinty resourcefulness and inner strength, while coming across as a frightened little girl who was in over her head. Good as Lawrence was, nothing she did in those movies can prepare you for the daring and emotional range of her performance in the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell, from a script he adapted from a novel by Matthew Quick.

She plays Tiffany, a cop’s widow, who’s ready to start putting her life back together after using promiscuous sex to blot out her guilt over her husband’s death. Lawrence looks different here than in her other starring roles: Those characters couldn’t get enough to eat, and had learned to settle for not much more from life than survival. Tiffany’s face is wreathed in baby fat, and her eyes drill into people even when they’re half-clouded over from misery or desire. In a movie where everyone is partly driven by some compulsion or mania, Tiffany’s ability to decide what she wants and to go for it make her seem like the only sane person around, which makes it that much more startling when she receives a temporary setback on her way to the goal line: melting down, she yells “You are killing me!” at her sister, Veronica (Julia Stiles), and retreats to the nearest bar. Emotionally, the role is all over the map, and Lawrence fuses everything she does into a believable, touching character and brings her as close to the viewer as she can without sitting in your lap. You have to feel for her. The biggest challenge those other characters Lawrence has played was not getting killed by one of their friends or family members; Tiffany is trying to turn Bradley Cooper into someone she can live with.

Bradley Cooper, Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro
Cooper plays Pat, a former teacher who brutally assaulted his wife’s lover and has now been released from the hospital, having been diagnosed with bipolar disease. (When stressed, he hears his wedding song: Stevie Wonder’s “Mon Cherie Amour.”) He moves in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and devotes himself to a physical workout regimen and to developing a “positive” attitude – all of which, he thinks, will prepare him for his reunion with his wife, who’s gotten a restraining order against him and is moving on with her life. Pat meets Tiffany at a dinner party that Veronica and her husband (John Ortiz) throw for him, partly to gauge his sanity. The two of them bond over an informed discussion about the pros and cons of various anti-depressants, after which he walks her home and intrigues her by declining her invitation to go to bed with her. Pat really gets in solid with Tiffany when, hiding behind her own front door, she overhears him gently urging a man she’s phoned out of desperation not to take advantage of her sexually. He calls her a wounded bird who’s just started to heal, and – the beautiful part – he does it without becoming abusive or judging the guy. “You’re better than this,” he says, in a tone that might actually make the guy want to prove that he’s right. The pleasures of Silver Linings Playbook come from seeing Tiffany fall in love and watching her plot things out so that Pat will be ready to see that he loves her too, when his head clears and he abandons this nonsense about winning his wife back.

At times, these pleasures match up with those of watching Lawrence work her own magic and pull Cooper onto her wavelength. Lawrence is an artist; Cooper is a spin artist, someone convinced of his own likability and working at shaping that into a career. His big hits are The Hangover movies, in which he plays the audience-identification character the guys in the audience are supposed to relate to while the zanies in the cast do all the crazy stuff that was in the trailer – i.e., the Zeppo. This movie represents his second bid this season to be taken seriously; the first, the embarrassing The Words, is that most misbegotten of all God’s creatures, a would-be Oscar-bait movie (complete with Cooper glowering sensitively in the poster) that couldn’t even wring an admiring blurb out of Roger Ebert.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
From the first sight of him here, he’s visibly working to be in character – which is a little different from Lawrence, who simply is her character. Watching him, you get the feeling that he’s acting by trying to be self-effacing, so we won’t be too blinded by the walking charisma overload that is Bradley Cooper, sexiest man alive. Luckily, Tiffany’s plan involves getting Pat to dance with her, and Lawrence and Cooper are adorable together on the practice floor. Cooper loosens up as he and Lawrence start to cook together, a process that can pass for Pat loosening up and finding out who he really wants to be with. Cooper also connects well with De Niro, who gives his best performance in quite some time. As Pat’s bookmaker father, a football nut who’s been banned from the stadium for starting fights, he suggests a man who once had a lot of rage inside and who’s mellowed with age but still remembers everything he was ever angry about. Silver Linings Playbook is a little reminiscent of Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987); they both have a similar faith in the binding and restorative power of family, especially for the slightly cracked. (The parasitic rival bookmaker Pat’s father hangs out with, and who threatens to take his business away, is treated as a part of the household, and not someone to be condemned for his predatory behavior: it’s just his nature.) 

In the ‘90s, Russell made three movies – the satirical family comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster and the Iraq War picture Three Kings – that marked him as a major talent. But in the decade between Three Kings and TheFighter, he only managed to complete one feature – I Heart Huckabees, an ambitious botch that may be best known for a humiliating YouTube clip showing Russell having an on-set tantrum. Some admirers of Russell’s earlier work have complained that the comeback of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (where he tells us that it's families who make us cracked) are simply a compromise: that they’re depressingly conventional compared to his other films. They are conventional, but they’re also remarkably alive, and pound for pound, they’re a lot better than I Heart Huckabees, which had a whole caree
r’s worth of invention and originality but just pointlessly spun off in the direction of distant galaxies. Of course, it would be nice if Russell, having regained his form and some industry cred, could reconnect with his wilder ambitions again. But in the meantime, an actual good movie is not nothing.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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