Tuesday, November 20, 2012

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012) directed by David O. Russell, 18th November 2012

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is a film about mental illness.  We follow the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), sufferer of a bipolar disorder. As the film opens he's being released from a state mental institution after serving a sentence for violently beating someone half to death.  He suffers from intense mood swings, turning on a knife edge from happy and upbeat to depressive and violent.  

David O. Russell has created a film that pulls itself in two directions at once.  It’s obviously striving to present an accurate and sympathetic view of various types of mental disorder but is shackled to the conventions of the romantic comedy.  These two ‘genres’ (if ‘mental illness film’ is really a genre) sit uneasily together.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper)
The narrative shows us Pat’s attempts to conquer his condition and reintegrate himself into a society that’s suspicious and scared of him.  They’re scared of him with good reason though, he lacks a filter on his words and actions, frequently acting inappropriately and with no empathy for how he might come across to others.  While he’s constantly feeling some kind of extreme emotion, he entirely lacks the apparatus to identify how he’s affecting those around him.  He’ll burst into his parent’s bedroom late at night to rant about Ernest Hemingway and throw a book through the window, or run up and hug a visibly frightened ex-colleague. 

Pat is not the most likeable filmic hero.  Throughout the film he operates under the illusion that he’s going to get his marriage back together, which everyone around him can immediately tell is not going to happen.  People try to let him down gently and get him to see that his wife probably isn’t coming back.  He labours under the illusion that their love is unbreakable, even after she’s had an affair and he’s nearly beaten a man to death in front of her.  

Pat's parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro)
Into this tangled world comes the equally complicated Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).  She’s a recent widow and ever since her husband died has been undergoing an alienating nymphomania.  To the obvious disgust and embarrassment of her family she’s been having sex with nearly everybody she comes across.  It’s gotten to the point where she’s been fired from her job for sleeping with everyone in the office.  So can these two damaged people come together and help each other with their problems? 

But it’s not just our two leads that are suffering psychic pains.  One of the points the film makes is that the dividing line between those that are diagnosed mentally atypical and those that appear to lead normal lives is blurred.  Nearly every character in the film appears to be dealing with some kind of problem, be it an obsessive compulsive disorder, violent fits of rage or a hidden depression.  Russell is much more sympathetic to those like Pat and Tiffany who are honest enough to recognise their own problems and has a deep respect for the methods they use to try and fix themselves.

also Chris Tucker is in this film.
Both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have raging internal storms constantly bubbling behind their performances.  They’re portraying people that are not only volatile, but to some degree also have the knowledge that they can ‘get away with it’.  The two have both been damaged in some way, so both have an 'excuse' for their actions.  One of Cooper’s best tactics is to use his wide, bright blue eyes to show Pat's terrifying clearness and confidence in his actions.  The disconnect between how sure he is that his course is the right one and what we in the audience know to be true makes him both tragic and fairly frightening.  Cooper is confident in a difficult role, and in less skilled hands runs a risk of losing audience sympathy altogether.

Lawrence is a good match for him, her and Cooper bounce off each other realistically and reflexively.  She doesn’t have quite as many emotional gears to shift into as he does, but this is more of a function of her character rather than a limitation in her performance.  What she does fantastically is the transformation from reserved, cool and collected to towering, violent, frustrated rage.  There’s a physical change that comes over her in one scene that’s a marvel to behold, it’s like suddenly there’s a completely different person that’s sprung out of the character.

 The world that these two inhabit is as carefully constructed as the two central characters.  Due to their mental states, both Pat and Tiffany live and are dependant on their parents.  Russell takes the same kind of downbeat look at working class American life as he did in ‘The Fighter’, although with a slightly softer touch.  The film takes place in an overcast suburbia, row after row of identical houses, identical streets and nosy neighbours.  This endless downtrodden domestic conformity gets to you after a while, but does the job of making our leads stand out like sore thumbs.

It’s clear that everyone involved here is sincere in making a film that aims to educate us about what it is like suffering from or living with a person with a mental disorder.  The characters are treated with nothing but dignity, even in their most unsympathetic moments we at least understand why they are doing what they’re doing.  Despite this, the film does use the pretty lame cliche of saying ‘maybe the ones who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness are actually the sane ones?’ 

 This film has genuine flashes of complexity, and when it resorts to cliché like this it falls flat.  Russell goes some way to justify this by making nearly every other character in the film a bubbling pit of vague symptoms, but this ends up feeling like a clever way to dodge the point.  ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ doesn’t exactly glamorise mental illness, but that fact that it propels the central love story means some of the rough edges are necessarily sanded down. 

For the vast majority of the running time ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is a downbeat, bittersweet indie drama.  The last quarter of the film feels like it’s been parachuted in from a glossy, conventional romantic comedy.  Suddenly these damaged characters that we’ve gotten to know are acting relatively normally, and the focus shifts not onto whether they’re healing mentally, but bizarrely, onto their dancing skills.  The argument the film puts forward is that their dancing skills are directly linked to their mental health, but after treading so carefully on this territory for the first 90 minutes it becomes very clumsy, very fast.

It’s a let down.  We have it impressed upon us that this is an impossibly complex situation with no easy solutions, but the film takes a tonal swerve, shows us that actually there are easy solutions and ties everything up in a neat little bow.  A happy ending and roll credits.

Other criticisms include the fact that this film assumes you have a knowledge of American Football, and specifically know a vague history of the Philadelphia Eagles.  Characters repeatedly reference events in the history of this team, which may be common knowledge in the US, but I’ve got no idea what the hell they’re talking about and there’s not enough context to figure it out.

 The climax of the film involves a ridiculously complex bet on which all the emotional and financial woes of our characters rest.  The set up for this bet is one of the most interminable and confusing scenes I’ve seen in a film lately, and assumes you’ve got a knowledge of both American Football and US betting lingo.  There’s a protracted negotiation of ‘points’ on a bet and just when this is decided, the characters begin discussing transforming the already complex bet into a parlay (I didn’t know what this was).  To be fair they include a clumsy bit of exposition after the scene is over that translates it all into plain English, but it’s too little too late.  If the audience is watching the set up to the big climax and they don’t know what the hell anyone is talking about, it saps urgency from the film and replaces it with alienation and confusion.

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ for the most part is an achingly sincere film that clearly cares a great deal about its subject matter.  It’s got a solid core of talent and some deftly and sensitively sketched characterisation.  But it can’t work out what it wants to be.  Does it want to be an serious indie drama about mental illness or a conventional rom-com with two sweet, attractive leads?  By trying to do both it doesn’t succeed at either.   

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is on general release from 21st November 2012

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