Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 15, 2012 2:33 pm 
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David O. Russell dips further into the mainstream and accessible but still with an original touch in Silver Linings Playbook, a romance between two mental patients freshly out on their own and making a go at living healthy lives. The heart of the movie is the constant encounters of this pair and their sprightly, unexpected dialogue. Russell's story, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, offers no profound insight but neatly weaves together family and personal themes and provides a showcase for its actors, headed by the vibrant Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawence, both stepping into bolder, more three-dimensional roles than before, and an unusually natural Robert Di Niro, who blends seamlessly into his part as Pat Solitano, Sr., father of Pat (Cooper), now a full-time bookmaker and superstitious, OCD-ruled supporter of the home town team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Silver Linings Playbook lacks the brilliance of Russell's best movies. Gone are the outrageous set pieces of Three Kings or the hilarious surprises of Flirting with Disaster, or even the intensely atmospheric chaos of his recent The Fighter. But the warmth and non-stop energy lead to a nifty feel-good finale that neatly resolves several plot lines, generational, fiscal, and romantic. It's no surprise that this won the People's Choice Award at Toronto, a prize that heralded greater things when won by Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech.

With their swooping, jumpy images (which somehow avoid the usual handheld cliches) cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and editors Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers grab the screen and insist on holding it from frame one like hyperactive children demanding constant attention. It's hard to keep up the intensity through the whole movie and it lags a bit in the middle, but Cooper and Lawrence just don't let up in their scenes together. The film rhythms at first are a deliberate visual objective correlative of Pat Solitano's manic state. He's diagnosed as bipolar, but we don't get much of a look at the other pole. Russell's view of the dark side, as in The Fighter, comes through violence, and both Pats have serious anger issues, though differently manifested. Pat Sr. has been permanently barred from the Philadelphia football stadium for his violent outbursts. Pat Jr. has just done eight months in a mental institution in Baltimore in lieu of incarceration for nearly killing his wife's lover, her high school faculty colleague, whom he discovered with her in the shower -- with their wedding music, Stevie Wonder's "Ma Cherie Amour," -- playing outside. That song is a trigger for him, and he's still capable of waking up his parents at four in the morning in a rage over how Hemingway ends A Farewell to Arms.

The action is confrontational and precipitous, as when Pat's mom Dolores (the formidable Jackie Weaver of Animal Kingdom) springs him early, and Pat's pal Danny (a mercurial Chris Tucker) pops up in the car with them leaving the mental hospital, and then gets stopped and taken back. Or when they arrive at the Solitanos' kitschy Philly row house and Pat Sr. is immediately in his son's face demanding if he's really okay. Or when Pat meets Tiffany (Lawrence), and neither of them has any social restraints or verbal filters. On his first jog back home he goes to the high school where he used to substitute and scares the principal (Patsy Meck) half to death. No wonder Nikki, Pat's wife, has a restraining order against him. He needs restraining. On the other hand Tiffany, a self-styled "crazy slut with a dead husband," wants to have sex with Pat, but he is saving himself for his estranged wife.

Pat is on a tear to get his life together, following a "silver linings" playbook of positivity, his motto "Excelsior." He refuses to take his meds, on the familiar grounds that they make him bloated and mentally unclear. He has lost a lot of weight and is in the best shape of his life, his health kick mainly focused on long runs in the neighborhood. This is how he and Tiffany have their first encounters after they've met at an aborted dinner party, jogging, and they go on an oddball, aborted date that nonetheless shows plenty of chemistry between them, though Pat wants to save himself for Nikki, whom he's getting in shape to win back. He's also reading his way through her high school English syllabus -- Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, the Hemingway book -- to become closer to her.

Craziness is okay because people who are doing well also share it. Pat's married, highly successful best pal Ronnie (John Ortiz) is really full of rage, and his own father is seriously obsessive-compulsive, but making good money. And it's all a lark. There is sympathy and humanity in this approach even if it's also a bit of a whitewash. Viewers will have to decide for themselves if they're willing to make the trade-off. For me, it was sufficient pleasure to see Russell weave some of his old quirky magic. Not many American directors are this good at personal confusion and generations. Even if the absurdity and unexpectedness are not at the level of his best work, he manages to do something bold enough here that makers of Hollywood rom-coms may find they have a new standard of originality to meet.

The kooky-crazy tinge to the two lead characters, whose scenes as Justin Chang wrote in Variety are "sculpted with an almost David Mamet-like sharpness," keep the action precipitous and smart despite a familiar story arc toward reconciliation and romance. This is also an homage to Philadelphia and sports betting. A notable "aria" by Tiffany is one in which she recites Eagles scores to show they did best in games when Pat Jr. was with her, despite Pat Sr.'s superstitious, compulsive notion that Pat Jr. has to be in the house with him for a good outcome and successful bets.

Silver Lining's multiculturalism is tidy and schematic but part of the feel-good package that's as larky and sprightly as everything else. Danny, who's black, keeps popping back into the picture, just in time to inject some soul into Pat and Tiffany's dance routine. Pat's Indian psychiatrist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), who first informs us he's bipolar and pleads with him vainly to take his meds, also turns out to be an ardent Eagles supporter, and Pat gets involved in a violent melee at the stadium defending Patel's Asians-for-Eagles gang from racist America-firsters.

The action comes to center on Pat Sr.'s betting sprees, which could make or break the restaurant he's opening, with major investment from his old pal and gambling adversary Randy (Paul Herman), and a ballroom dancing contest Tiffany persuades Pat Jr. to prepare for with her, as reward for her passing letters from him to Nikki. The climactic dance contest sequence is a triumph of physicality for the movie, which has been largely verbal up to here, and the contrast between the pro dance couples with their glitzy outfits and cold, precision moves and Pat and Tiffany's schizophrenic but basically warm and human routine is a wonderful metaphor for real and heartfelt versus fake, theatrical love.

Silver Linings Playbook, 122mm, which debuted at Toronto, opened in the USA 16 Nov. (limited) and 21 Nov. 2012 (wider, also in the UK). Fulfilling its Toronto popular award, in January 2013 it received one of the Academy Awards' nine Best Picture nominations.

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