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. 

Take Shelter

There’s a storm comin’

2011_take_shelter_003Take care when choosing what company to bring along for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, the writer/director’s first film since 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which also featured Michael Shannon.  This is not to say the film should be avoided by anyone – after all, it’s nonviolent, passionately delivered, expertly directed, and has respect for its characters – but folks who scare easily may be burying their faces when the lightning strikes.

I don’t think I took a single breath during this film.  Billed as a “thriller,” Take Shelter casually swats any attempts at genre pigeonholing.  The story centers around Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a couple living on the outskirts of a small Ohio town.  They are the parents of a hearing-impaired child, Hannah (Tova Stewart), planning a cochlear implant operation, which will require the aid of Curtis’ health insurance policy.  Curtis has a good job in construction, where he not only enjoys excellent benefits, but works with his best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham).  As the film begins, Curtis begins having terrible dreams.  The dreams begin with a storm, and then chaos ensues.  Rain becomes motor oil.  Tornadoes rip his house from its foundation.  Black birds swarm overhead.  Hannah is taken from him.  His dog attacks him, and the pain lingers throughout the day.  Curtis fears that these may not be just dreams (he describes them as “feelings”), and begins to prepare for the worst.

The tension in the film lies in the fact that Curtis does not give Samantha the chance to understand what he’s feeling: he hides it from her, even when he takes out a risky bank loan to pay for an addition to his storm shelter.  Still, he isn’t arrogant or self-important enough (as male movie protagonists often are) to consider himself a prophet: he knows his family has a history of mental illness, so he visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis’s age.  Curtis takes books on the subject from the library, sees a counselor at a free clinic, tries a prescription medication for sleep, and (illegally) borrows equipment from work to dig his shelter.  Dewart, concerned but a friend first, helps however he can.  Eventually, Curtis must reveal what he’s seen to Samantha, and the real tests of faith begin.

Michael Shannon gives one of the strongest performances of the year.  What a step away from his other current role (that of Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire).  His voice sparks with power, and even in his possible madness, he deserves the highest degree of sympathy.  Jessica Chastain, an actress I cannot say enough about, shines in her seventh major role this year.  The story of Take Shelter is just as much about Samantha dealing with Curtis’s problems as it is about Curtis dealing with it himself, and Jessica stifles absolutely no emotion.  She, more than anyone, makes the viewer want everything to work out in the end.  What an amazing collection of characters she is assembling.

Nichols exercises a subtle, yet absolute, mastery over his domain.  As I mentioned earlier, he has an undying respect for his characters, and this comes through in every scene (e.g. no one is killed by zombies or turned into a child-napping maniac, regardless of what Curtis’s dreams may suggest).  There are no abrupt genre exercises or contrived “twists.”  The family feels like a family.  There are long, hovering shots that seem to challenge the viewer to find something wrong, something off, something that should not be there (as Curtis is).  A scene in which Curtis loses all sense of reticence at a community benefit and throws a histrionic fit feels obligatory, but his pontificating is so genuine, so desperate, that it’s not only acceptable, but necessary.  The lens stays expertly focused on Curtis while we wait to see the most important shot: Samantha’s face.  Can she continue to deal with this?

It should also be noted that Samantha, not Curtis, is given the responsibility of making economic decisions for the family after Curtis’s situation jeopardizes his job.  “I’ve made a decision,” she says.  Eventually, a real storm starts.  Without spoiling anything, what follows is a scene scorched with drama, the most genuine display of trust between film characters I’ve seen all year (and after Another Earth, that’s saying something).

Take Shelter (2011); written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

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