“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said ‘I want a second opinion’.
He said ‘Okay, you’re ugly, too.’”
– Rodney Dangerfield
*Apologies for the tardiness of this review. I viewed Silver Linings Playbook at the San Francisco Metreon on Saturday – 20 April 2013.
If you’ve read enough of my reviews, then perhaps you’ve picked up on my ability to suspend my disbelief only so much. It probably goes hand-in-hand with my reaction towards adapted work: I understand, and am perfectly comfortable with, the fact that certain details will be changed so as to provoke a specific dramatic affect in this production. If a certain character’s details were revealed in a novel, but not in a film; if a superhero’s origin story had to be truncated to fit a two-hour runtime; hell, if the lightning bolt on Harry Potter’s head is more right-of-centre instead of the centre of his forehead (mind you, JK Rowling never said where on his forehead was the scar; the cover illustrators made that decision) then I’m perfectly all right with that. All I care about is if you can make me care about this version of the story.
Having said that, it’s funny what will and won’t be accepted by the mind as real. Alien invasions, zombie infestations, and super-powered beings are par for the course. But should the slightest anachronism show up and one is pulled right out of the story. This varies from person to person, based on their own experience. The average person usually won’t pick up on the glaring scientific errors of the latest Hollywood blockbuster because the average person isn’t Neil Degrasse Tyson; they don’t know what crime films get wrong because – hopefully – most of them aren’t part of a criminal underworld; and a lot of them won’t pick up on the errors in a film about mental illness because a lot of them won’t have experienced it firsthand.
Which brings me to today’s misguided mess of a film: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. It’s a film that shows moments when it could have been a tender look at people attempting to cope mental illnesses, but opted instead to be sappy romance so clichéd that you’ve already figured out the entire plot before I’ve finished this sentence.
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man with bipolar disorder, has just been released from a healthcare facility into the care of his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Pat wishes to see his estranged wife, but his refusal to stick with his therapy and medications don’t make that a possibility.
During dinner with a friend, he meets the friend’s attractive sister-in-law, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widowed nymphomaniac. Tiffany is a competitive dancer. She is also a friend of Pat’s estranged wife. Tiffany promises Pat that if he partners with her for her next competition, she will send along information to Pat’s wife that he has changed for the better.
Has it hit you yet? Have you figured it out? From that incredibly conservative synopsis, have you already figured out which way the story will go? I know I did. I think you did, too, because you, dear reader, are not an idiot. If you have ever seen a “romantic comedy” in your entire life, you know what’s going to happen. And that is exactly what happens. It doesn’t matter whether this plot development is true to either (A) the trajectory of the characters in the story or (B) realistic in regards to the illnesses portrayed in the film (it fails at both), it’s just about forcing these characters into the conventions of the genre so that they can have the ending you predicted during the opening title screen.
In the late Roger Ebert’s review of Living Out Loud he kept alluding to his own review of James L. Brooks’ As Good as it Gets. The former film is about a divorcee trying to move on with her life, but – no matter how much we want her to – not being led down the road we’d expect. The latter is a film about a bigoted obsessive compulsive author with a crush on a waitress. He gave a positive review of the latter, but was put off by the way the ending forced the characters into the tropes of the genre rather than having the courage to stay true to the characters themselves. “But,” he wrote, “As Good as it Gets is a compromise, a film that forces a smile onto material that doesn’t easily wear one.” I can think of no other statement more appropriate in describing Silver Linings Playbook.
But then, I shouldn’t be surprised, given who’s in charge. My first exposure to David O. Russell was seeing the ridiculously overrated Three Kings during its original run. I walked out of the cinema unimpressed. The lack of impression would later turn to bewilderment when the film began receiving near-universal acclaim. There have been some great films about the Gulf War (Courage Under Fire and Jarhead being two great examples), but Three Kings – seemingly inspired by Treasure of the Sierra Madre – is not one of them.
I can take or leave I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter; I don’t love or hate either. In the years since Three Kings, Russell has become more notorious for his childish on-set behaviour more than the content of his films (which, again, includes Three Kings wherein he got into a fistfight with George Clooney). But the fact that his latest film is so saccharine does not surprise me, given his track record. As much as he loves to make movies about tough guys, he does so from the perspective of an unabashed romantic. As a fellow unabashed romantic, I empathise, but it doesn’t always make for good storytelling.
I will say that the performances are all adequate. I’m not so sure Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was truly Oscar-worthy, but she is definitely one of the better “under 30” actresses working today. My Canadian man-crush Bradley Cooper brings his usual natural charisma to the role. Even a restrained Chris Tucker provides a welcome presence.
And then there’s Robert De Niro. Many others have already written ad nauseum of how De Niro went from the energetic chameleon of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the icy-staring man of business in the early- and mid-‘90s (seriously, watch Heat and Ronin again – your life will be better for it) to “that guy in all those crappy comedies” from the late-‘90s onward. In this film, he looks like he, for lack of a better term, actually gives a shit. It’s refreshing to see after so long. Playing nearly every scene off Jacki Weaver doesn’t hurt either.
Listen, I get the appeal of a film like this – really, I do. People want to believe that no matter how screwed they may be, that it’s possible to find happiness with another person. There’s nothing wrong with that idea, nor putting it into drama. But in dramatisation, there is a point where you must decide if the character will be actual people or merely avatars of your beliefs. This film chose the latter, and I found the results very lacking.