Silver Linings Playbook

Excelsior!

Silver Linings Playbook is the greatest rom-com of its generation.  Why?  Because it’s never played for laughs, and its cozy ending is never guaranteed or taken for granted.  Jennifer Lawrence has already scooped up several awards for her performance, including her second nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars.  Do the majority of the film’s proponents feel that David O. Russell (and to a separate extent, writer Matthew Quick) does an honest job of portraying the mentally ill in a sympathetic light, or do the film’s characters simply fall into line with popular perceptions of folks struggling with these illnesses (i.e. the way we want to think about the “less fortunate”)?  I hope it’s not the latter, but I’d like to explore it a little.

The movie begins with Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a married man with bipolar disorder, returning home after eight months of treatment at a mental health care facility.  His wife, who previously cheated on him, has gone away due to Pat’s violent behavior, and Pat moves back in with his parents, Patrizio, aka Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver).  He has always shared a strained relationship with his father, who apparently favored Pat’s brother, Jake (Shea Whigham), and who, as a result of being out of work, has taken up bookmaking (in particular, gambling on Philadelphia Eagles games) to make ends meet.  Pat Sr. associates all sorts of superstitions with the Eagles, displaying mild symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder when games are on – he must hold onto a certain handkerchief for the duration of each game, the remote controls must point in a certain direction while resting on the TV stand, certain family members must sit on certain sections of the couch, and so on.  These are mostly played as the Movie version of OCD (i.e. quirky and ultimately harmless), but thankfully, Pat Sr.’s problems don’t exist as a joke in and of themselves: he desperately wants to reconnect with his son; however, he must do it on his own terms, and we can sympathize with him as a well-meaning (albeit poor) father attempting to rectify mistakes and be a good dad, even though his child is now an adult.

The fun begins when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) at a dinner with his two married friends, Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles).  Tiffany’s husband, a police officer, has recently been killed – not doing cop work, but hit by a car while helping a stranger change a tire.  Tiffany admits to not being thrilled with her relationship in the time leading up to her husband’s death, however, and was fired from her job for, as she puts it, “having sex with everyone in the office.”  Pat asks, “Were there any women?”  “Yes,” she says.  “What was that like?”  “Hot.”  Is O. Russell ogling the then-21-year-old Lawrence here?  Yep, absolutely.  Is he making a joke out of sex addiction?  Maybe; I hope not.  But this scene turns out to be something wonderful, and not throwaway sexualization.  Pat’s reaction (one of titillation and great interest) comes back to haunt him – he accuses Tiffany of being “crazier” than he is, she points out, yet he loved hearing about her sexual escapades.  This brings things right back to the audience.  It’s a scene designed for a certain reaction (particularly from male viewers), but it also invites us to examine why we have the reactions we have, and serves to remind us that no one is immune to hypocrisy.

Tiffany eventually recruits Pat to be her dance partner in exchange for delivering letters from Pat to his estranged wife, who has obtained a restraining order against him.  As an audience, of course, we think, “No!  You two are supposed to end up together!” but they cannot yet see it (also, given their personalities, we’re not too sure a relationship is a good idea).  Pat accepts this dance partnership at the same time as Pat Sr. and Jake attempt to rekindle their familial bonds with him, and this leads to layers and layers of personal conflict that bring every character together on many different levels.  Yes, the characters work as slaves to romantic comedy convention – Meet Cute, Lull Section, Spiteful Sleaze, etc. – but the characters are deepened and developed to the point that the story’s conventional backdrop feels like a cushion.  We know Pat must eventually chase down Tiffany in the end, but the film is only a comedy insofar as Shakespeare’s comedies were: not meant as one big joke throughout, but comforting enough in its conclusion that there’s little to no unease during the walk up the aisle.

Silver Linings Playbook respects its characters and places them, not the concept, beneath the spotlight, however many bits of formula may be visible beneath the gloss.  The various mental/medical struggles of the characters, while oversimplified and polished for the screen, are never played off as lovable quirks, and that’s rare.  Here we see Bradley Cooper’s best performance yet (proving he can do something other than the slick Fonzie type character), and another juggernaut from Jennifer Lawrence, in her third and most special performance of the year.  The scroll of awards she’s collected since 2010 is enough to humble anyone in her age bracket and trade.  Robert De Niro, as the struggling old father, has the Christopher Plummer effect in this movie (maybe because his relationship with Cooper’s Pat is close to home) – when he gets teary, so do I.  Jacki Weaver’s and Shea Whigham’s characters are used well, and there’s even an appearance from Chris Tucker, who pops up now and again as Danny, Pat’s hospital-mate and the film’s resident comic relief.

Roger Ebert said of this movie, “[it’s] so good, it could almost be a terrific old classic.”  When the AFI does its “200 Years” list, I have every confidence that it will be considered one.  Let’s just remember to thank John Milton for the title.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012); written and directed by David O. Russell; adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver. 

Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.

Killer Elite

MFWIC

I have to admit something: Killer Elite looked like a very bad idea when I first saw the posters.  “A shameless Jason Statham vehicle,” I thought.  However, after seeing Yvonne Strahovski’s name in the top four billing slots, as well as reading that the film was inspired by Ranulph Fiennes’ controversial book, The Feather Men, a story he claimed was a nonfictional account of his rescue by the Special Forces from a group of assassins, my interest was piqued.

My initial instinct was half right, though I must admit, the film exceeded my expectations.  It is only marginally based upon Fiennes’ book; the story and characters are pure invention.  It’s a bit smarter than most action fare, though, lacking a maniacal arch-villain and the usual quota of explosions.  Statham plays the central character, Danny Bryce, an ex-mercenary blackmailed into one last job: assassinate a group of ex-SAS members.  The job is given by a Dubai Sheikh whose sons were murdered by the ex-SAS members during the Oman war.  If Danny doesn’t do the job, then his best friend, Hunter (Robert de Niro) will be executed.

Yvonne Strahovski does what she can with her role, which I’d originally thought might be that of an assassin, but alas, she appears as Anne, Danny’s Australian girlfriend, who sits at home and worries.  Her involvement increases when she is targeted by one of Danny’s greedy contacts, known as the Agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but this section of the story still only involves her being moved from place to place and worrying more.  She gets one very good scene with Robert de Niro, however, and I think we should acknowledge how significant this is.

Danny’s team, Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young) work as a dysfunctional machine, and the assassination scenes become much more interesting when we’re introduced to the rule that the killings must look like accidents.  Eventually, Spike Logan (Clive Owen, in a role that rhymes with his name), a member of the Feather Men, becomes aware that his friends are being killed, and decides to hunt the assassins who are assassinating assassins.  I could have fit another occurrence of “assassin” in that sentence, but the plot is cluttered and disjointed enough.  Despite this, the tension never wanes, even when the filmmakers attempt to increase the suspense with cheap, horror-movie-style music catches.  We even get a new, sort-of funny acronym, which could only exist in the British lexicon.

The best part of the film’s major conflict, sausage-fest as it is, is the fact that neither side is inherently bad.  Danny and his team do the job in order to save an innocent man (the ones who are in it for the money don’t live very long), and Logan, similarly, is trying to keep his friends from being systematically murdered.  All parties receive a relatively fair, if hopelessly safe and cozy, ending.  Luckily, Statham isn’t given the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue, and while he carries the most responsibility, de Niro is given plenty to say, and Strahovski’s importance is stressed by the narrative, though her scenes can’t help but seem thrown in.

Also of interest is a cameo appearance by an actor playing Fiennes himself after the book is published in the film’s fiction.  As the film’s story is inspired by the book, the scene in which the book is revealed is a very good “gotcha” moment which simultaneously gives off the tang of anachronism, and while I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a time loop, it was better than being beaten over the head with absurd stunts, relentless Bull-shitsu, and fake-looking CG.  If you have to choose an action movie this month, choose Killer Elite over anything that takes place on an animated planet.  Your brain will thank you.

Killer Elite (2011); written by Matt Sherring (based upon Ranulph Fiennes’ novel, The Feather Men); directed by Gary McKendry; starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert de Niro and Yvonne Strahovski.