Thursday, January 31, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Alternate Title:  Madness Ensues

One sentence synopsis:   A Bipolar man gets out of a mental hospital and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife with the aid of a neurotic sex addict.

Things Havoc liked: Please take a moment to consider the fact that we live in a world where a movie with the above synopsis not only exists, but is being seriously considered for an Academy Award.

Romantic Comedies are a genre wasted on me, by and large. I couldn't even name you the classics of the genre with any sense of accuracy. But when the Academy gives one an Oscar nod, it's generally a sign that this might be a good time to branch out. And having actors like Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro involved doesn't hurt, even if DeNiro has made an unpleasant habit of phoning it in for his last few films. Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a wound up Bipolar sufferer just getting out of prison for having nearly beaten his ex-wife's illicit lover to death in an explosion of rage. I've always liked Cooper despite the awful movies he's often been associated with (Yes Man, Wedding Crashers, The A-Team), but I've never seen him quite like this. Solitano is not a fun, wacky, crazy man, but a legitimate Bipolar nut, who early on in the film becomes very hard to watch as he wakes his parents up in the middle of the night to rant and rave, screaming in rage and frustration at the turns his life has taken, all while steadfastly refusing to take the drugs he has been prescribed. His life, such as it is, is centered around getting back together with his wife, who has not only taken out a restraining order against him, but moved away, and his insistence that he can patch things up with her by reading her course syllabus would be hilarious if it weren't so painfully pathetic. I can't say I enjoyed watching him throughout the film, but Cooper is exceptionally good in this role, pushing his condition to levels that make sense realistically without ever going into comic book zanyness. At times he will explode over the most minute of issues, and at other times, he will calmly endure provocations that would make any reasonable person erupt. Such is the nature of mental illness.

Lawrence's portrayal, while perhaps less drawn from reality (she plays a nymphomaniac who got fired from her job for sleeping with literally everyone else), still has the proper verisimilitude for the subject matter. An early scene at a dinner party where she and Cooper manage to have a 'normal' conversation by comparing the effects of the various mood-altering prescription drugs they've been on sounds remarkably like depraved conversations I've had or been witness to among people in similar circumstances. At other times, Lawrence can be as violently rage-fueled as Cooper, calling passers by to accost him for "harassing" her, or cutting her own sister dead by interrupting a dinner party moments after everyone sits down to announce she's leaving because she's 'tired'. Last I saw Lawrence, she was playing a teenage archer in the Hunger Games, but this role is to that one like Taxi Driver is to Meet the Parents. The two of them play well off one another, as she tries to convince him, by hook or crook, to help her in a dance competition, despite neither one of them showing much in the way of aptitude.

But it's really the supporting cast that holds this movie together, from De Niro and the indomitable Jackie Weaver (last seen being awesome in Animal Kingdom), who play Cooper's long-suffering parents, to, and I can't believe I'm writing this man's name in the 'liked' section, Chris Tucker (last seen being an insufferable dunce), who plays one of Cooper's fellow mental patients. Every supporting actor is excellent individually, but it's the overall sense that they give the film, between De Niro's OCD-fuelled football rituals, to Cooper's brother's axiomatic competitiveness, to Lawrence's sister and her husband, who are their own bag of unresolved issues, that allow the movie to walk a tightrope between extremes. We get to see that the illness that Cooper and Lawrence suffer from is clearly one of degrees, as there is nobody in the movie one might call perfectly sane. And yet those degrees make all the difference, something apparent as, over the course of the film, some characters do begin to master their conditions, and others do not.

Things Havoc disliked: Before we get to anything else, I have to mention that this movie posits an NFL season in which the Philadelphia Eagles defeat the 49ers, Giants, and Cowboys, on their way to the playoffs, a posit which catapults the film past fiction and into outright escapist fantasy. It also posits that Eagles' fans are all criminally insane, but I have less of a problem with this.

I've kept a fairly spoiler-free policy in these little reviews, which in this case is something of an issue, as my major problems with the film arise in the last third or so. The movie, which had been a reasonably interesting story of how two messed-up people helped one another through their mutual issues, took turns that I admit I did not foresee, but seemed rather forced, considering everything. The ludicrous "bet" that De Niro makes with his friend over the Eagles' game is so foolish that it transparently exists only as a means of generating forced tension for the last bit of the film, while the 'twists' that take place over the last act not only make no sense (how many people would willingly violate their own restraining orders on the advice of 'friends'?) but twist the film into a much more formulaic piece than it had previously been. Why this all was done is beyond me, perhaps the source material had it, or perhaps the narrative rhythm of romantic comedies is simply different. But for all the logical sense of the ending, it simply felt flat to me, thanks to contrivances aplenty that led up to it, though I cannot say more without giving the ending itself away.

Final thoughts:    I saw this movie on the strength of superb reviews and, of course, the Oscar Buzz that surrounded it, and while I didn't think it reached the rapturous heights that the professional critics did, the movie was still a very solid piece, buttressed by excellent performances by everyone, including several actors I had sworn off entirely (Tucker, for instance). I wouldn't call it the best picture of last year, nor even place it in the top ten, but as the romantic comedy genre goes, one can do far, far worse.

Final Score:  7/10

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