Sunday, January 27, 2013

Caitlin's Review of Silver Linings Playbook

Like a Lead Balloon
by Caitlin Murphy

A few years back, the Best Picture Oscar category was expanded from a list of 5 nominations to a maximum of 10.  The change seemed to have merit:  create room for the less conventionally epic, the more comedically inclined, the smaller budgeted –  or otherwise just somehow humbler – cinematic offerings to enter the fray.  It’s a move that’s allowed the Oscars to embrace such gems as this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which might otherwise have fallen off the radar.  But it’s also a move that’s backfired, letting in riff-raff like Silver Linings Playbook.  Written and directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter) and based on the novel by Matthew Quick, the film is a warmed-over rom-com that manages mediocrity at every turn.

Set in Philadelphia, the film opens with Pat Solatono (Bradley Cooper) being released from a mental health institution where he’s been staying since a breakdown 8 months ago.  He comes home to live with his football-obsessed father (Robert DeNiro) and snack-making mother (Jackie Weaver), armed with a new determination to always find life’s silver linings (why haven’t other bi-polar sufferers come up with this yet?).  Pat strategizes to re-establish his life, regain his job, and win back his wife (currently holding a restraining order against him).  Out for a run one day, he meets Tiffany, a sultry, recently-widowed 20-something, who’s been self-medicating with sexual promiscuity.  In exchange for getting Tiffany to hand-deliver a letter to his wife (not sure why the American postal service wouldn’t work), Pat agrees to be Tiffany’s partner for a dance competition.  And thus the bumpy wheels of the ‘romantic’ plot are put into crunchy motion.

In the vein of As Good as It Gets, the film attempts that awkward blend of actual mental illness (as opposed to mere personality quirk) with light romantic comedy, trotting out that old chestnut that true love can fix any noggin.  It seems the only recent revision to this rom-com narrative of “fucked up guy, meets redeeming girl who saves him from himself” is “fucked up guy, meets similarly fucked up girl, who saves him from himself.”  Equality at last. 

Pat’s behaviour though never quite feels ugly or complicated enough to do service to the reality of serious mental illness.  His capacity for violence is typically tied to ethical outrage:  his initial breakdown, for instance, resulted from discovering that his wife was having an affair and losing it on his romantic rival.  Well, who wouldn’t do that, right?  At least a bit.  And once he’s out in the real world again, the only time Pat’s violent rage re-surfaces is when he defends his Indian therapist from a bunch of racist football fans.  Awww.  

Focusing also on Pat’s father’s OCD-like behaviour surrounding his beloved football, as well as his own history of violence (he’s banned from stadium games), the film seems interested in suggesting that we’ve all got our own case of the ‘crazies’ and some are just more official than others.  But it’s a theme that never really gathers much momentum, and limply lies on the ground by film’s end.

To return to the Oscar noms, the film also somehow wound up in the undeservedly distinguished company of films like A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virignia Woolf with nominations in all four acting categories (leading and supporting).  Bradley Cooper, (who no matter what he does in his career I will always comfortably reduce to ‘that guy from The Hangover’) demonstrates precisely why he’s always expressing red-carpet bafflement to have found himself with an acting career.  His performance is so much fluff.  As for Jennifer Lawrence, I like her –  her husky voice, solid build, no-nonsense posture, Juliette Lewis-like snark.  She had me at Winter’s Bone and it will take quite a bit to undo that love at first sight.  But she’s wasted here.  One-note and predictable.

When Pat’s father loses a huge football bet that he wagered based on a rabbit’s foot faith in Pat, everyone rallies around to help him.  What follows is a long, sloppy scene in which the players plot out an elaborate parlay bet to win back his money by pairing up the results of a football game with those of Pat and Tiffany’s dance competition.  The scene was reminiscent of a bunch of squabbling screenwriters sitting around past midnight trying desperately to figure out how to ‘end this thing.’  And this is exactly what the film felt like far too often – watching what the filmmakers were ‘trying’ to do, the awkward plot-making machine churning away.

And the bow that ultimately wraps up this turd?  A boy-girl chase scene that ends with a kiss in the middle of the street.  Of course.   Like every other moment in Silver Linings Playbook, it’s precisely something you’ve seen before, or else something that vaguely stinks of it.   The entire film lacks texture and specificity, and when it does manage to scrounge some up, the results are so contrived and self-conscious, that it might as well have crept back to its sleepy den of cliché.


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