Saturday, January 5, 2013

(Senti)mental: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK


In Silver Linings Playbook, characters at once sharply drawn and broadly sketched bounce off of each other with personalities informing every bit of dialogue that zings around the room. This film has writer-director David O. Russell squarely in his wheelhouse, orchestrating ensembles through funny quips on their way to deeply felt characterizations, much like his 1996 indie screwball Flirting with Disaster or the family scenes in 2010’s The Fighter. In Playbook, Russell (working from a novel by Matthew Quick) makes broad, yet well defined, character studies out of a plot that’s part recovery drama, part romantic comedy, part sports film and part dance movie. It’s not as complicated as it sounds and goes down oh so smoothly.

The film starts with a woman (Jacki Weaver) checking Pat, her adult son (Bradley Cooper), out of a mental hospital. He’s had a breakdown that matches the collapse of his marriage. Now living with his mother and freshly unemployed father (Robert DeNiro), Pat thinks that if he can put his life back together convincingly enough, he’ll win back his wife. This seems like denial, seeing as she got a restraining order on him. He seems like a smart man, but he’s unable to face his problems head on. His therapist (Anupam Kher) encourages him to stay on his medication, encouragement he’s quick to ignore. He obsessively jogs, reads, and lingers on the edges of his former life. Sometimes he lingers too closely, leading a friendly cop (Dash Mihok) to wander over and remind the family about certain court-ordered distances.

Realizing that living in the past is no help, friends and family set up a dinner at which Pat can be introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widowed young woman who has been through more than her fair share of therapy. It’s not clear what their relationship will develop into, although it’d be nice if they could find some way to ease their anguish together. Russell frames their tentative steps towards friendship in likably loose scenes of brisk comedy and bracing emotional truths. The ensemble features characters with their own goals and aspirations – DeNiro needs to win money gambling on football games; a mental patient (played by a funny, restrained Chris Tucker) just wants to find his way out of the hospital; Weaver is desperate to see her family whole again – and Russell weaves the strands of plot and character together in a nicely handled balancing act. By the time the movie involves a high-stakes dance competition such developments seem only natural.

Cooper and Lawrence have pleasant chemistry that’s fraught with crackling irreverence. They’re drawn to each other by their inappropriateness, each with a tendency to flatly state what should not be shared in polite company. They have no filters. At their first meeting, he bluntly asks how her husband died. They bond over their shared experiences with antidepressant medications. There’s a certitude to their speech, a hard edge to their movements, and yet a hesitancy in the eyes, as if they’re convincing themselves as much as the rest of the world that they’re okay. She ambushes him while jogging with a sharp “Hey!” They run together until they end up in front of a diner. “Do you want to eat here?” he asks. It’s a date. They speak with the sparkling speed of the wittiest romcoms, but spit each line as if wedging it into the moment, as if the words can’t be contained. Altogether, the strong ensemble inhabit the roles with care and nuance, bringing the broader tendencies of the screenplay pleasingly down to earth with Russell’s casual camerawork assisting.

It’d be easy for the film to turn cutesy or schmaltzy and, though it’s certainly an easy crowd-pleaser, it treats the characters’ mental problems with a degree of seriousness where a lesser film would use them as a simple plot device or, worse yet, an affliction for which romance is a perfect panacea.  No, instead Russell builds a satisfying Hollywood ending that accepts the characters for who they are, recognizes their individual capacities for change, and dares to find them a happy ending that fits just right. As far as the genres and character types Russell’s dealing with are concerned, he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but isn’t it nice that he’s managed to make just about the best possible wheel he could?

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