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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

After weeks of dragging my feet and a number of other cinematic priorities, I finally got the chance to catch Silver Linings Playbook. The latest film from David O. Russell, he of Three Kings, I <3 Huckabees, and 2010's Best Picture nominated The Fighter, is a film that's gotten alot of critical plaudits. I'm generally colder on Russell's work than most, but as a film that is sure to get nominated for Best Picture, I knew it was my duty to go in with an open mind. I'm sad to say, it was about what I expected.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is a former substitute teacher turned mental patient that, after serving 8 months for assaulting the man his wife was cheating on him with, is being released back into the care of his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jackie Weaver). His day to day goal after release is to reconnect with his estranged wife who has filed a restraining order against him. A breakdown or two later, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has been recently widowed and not the sanest of individuals herself. Tiffany, being a connection to his wife, is asked by Pat to deliver a letter to her on his behalf. Tiffany, in turn, seeks Pat's assistance as her partner in a local dance competition. The latter portion of the film details the build-up to this event.

Predictability is an element in film that we'll probably never escape, and unfortunately this is the major flaw in Silver Linings Playbook. I could predict that could happen in the film before it came to pass. Apologies in advance for the spoilers.

Spoiler space

Pat and Tiffany don't get along initially? What a shock! Tiffany wrote the response to Pat's letter to his wife? You don't say! They eventually fall in love and everyone is happy in the end, from this newly minted couple to their Dad winning the bet that saves his dreams of owning a cheesesteak restaurant? I don't believe it! This is a film that unfortunately wears over-done romantic comedy tropes into the ground.

End Spoilers

There is the occasional off-the-cuff moment; for the first 20 minutes or so, I found the script's approach to be pretty novel. Pat as a character is not well, he runs around town wearing a garbage bag looking for any excuse to get in touch with his wife and the slightest of elements set him off into a manic rage such as an ending of a book he finds distasteful. My favorite moment in entire affair is when he goes to his regular therapy session and over the reception area piped in music he hears (perhaps only in his mind) "My Cherie Amour", his wedding song, in which he flys into an absolute rage destroying a magazine rack and then quickly apologizes. It's played for laughs, but there's a real human element in which Pat's sickness is portrayed there and in a few other scenes such as when he can't find his wedding video in his parent's attic (very poorly scored to Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be"). I'm sad there wasn't more of this, as for every scene where we get a sense that something  unique to this set of characters may occur, it's quickly followed by a contrived scenario that keeps the plot moving forward to the unrealistic and half-baked concluding act. This is another case of a film where the characters serve the plot, which is entertaining in parts, rather than the plot adequately serving the characters. The biggest black mark on Russell's work here is in how the mental illness angle more or less disappears by the time the dance competition angle takes over the story's focus. I'll warrant that it's probably alot harder to tell a love story when the two participants have mental foibles, but to soften all of those edges to bring the romantic elements to the forefront is a bit of disingenious storytelling that I found problematic when there was the potential for something really interesting.

In terms of positives, the first half of the film works quite well, and this is chiefly on the strength of Cooper's performance. I too scoffed at the idea of Bradley Cooper being able to perform in any kind awards-calibre capacity, but I was utterly blown away at what a fully developed character he was able to parlay in Pat. Every breakdown crackled with real pain and emotion, and while he's not a sympathetic character, he's a very intriguing creation. Lawrence does not fare as well, less due to her performance, which is fine and could have been strong, but to the lines given to her and the role her character plays in the story-arc. Tiffany behaves like no real human would, running around pursuing Pat like a wild stalker. Her character development is unfortunately given alot of short shrift by Russell's writing, and attempts at depth feel manufactured at best. Perhaps most notably, is the performance given by DeNiro, who plays a character with mental illnesses of his own that may strike closer to home for many a sports fan I know. Until the final set of scenes where DeNiro basically fades into the background, Pat's father not only adds wonderful character dimensions to Pat but is a fully formed breathing individual in his own right. It's the best performance DeNiro has given in years and I'm glad to see it.

Silver Linings Playbook has charming elements, is never boring, and has one truly revelatory performance in Cooper. It's a perfectly fine film, albeit one that is depressingly ordinary. There were elements in place here that could have made for one of the most interesting dramadies in years, but as Russell continually took the safe route with these characters, the whole is certainly lessened. I keep waiting for David O. Russell to finally meet his potential and make a truly great film, I guess I'll keep waiting.

I give it 2.5 out of 4 stars (or a B- if you prefer).
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