Friday, January 18, 2013

The Cinema File #89: "Silver Linings Playbook" Review

Really, Oscar voters, this was the best you could come up with? 

Okay, I'm not the biggest David O. Russell fan. Before now, the only movie of his I've outright liked was Three Kings, and I thought even that one was a little overrated. I think anyone who expresses any sort of effusive praise for the man's work should be required by law to have I <heart> Huckabees tattooed on their forehead (and I say that even while knowing that he was also the guy who did Spanking The Monkey). Russell's latest movie is probably his most mainstream effort yet, and while Silver Linings Playbook is far from a terrible film and maybe my favorite work by this director, that doesn't exactly make it good, and certainly doesn't make it worthy of the accolades, awards, and nominations it has inexplicably received. 

Before Zero Dark Thirty stoked his secret love of torture apology in film, my Picture Show Pundits colleague Nate Zoebl counted Silver Linings Playbook as his favorite film of 2012, which beat out The Grey, a movie that held his top spot for almost the entire year up to that point. Now that I've seen it, I know exactly why he put it so high on the list, and with as much bouncy gyrating Jennifer Lawerence in skin tight Lycra as we get in this movie, I'm only surprised he didn't instantly declare it the greatest movie of all time. Needless to say, I'm a bit of a harder sell, and though given the director's track record I definitely enjoyed the film much more than I thought I would, I simply do not understand the appeal of it for those without a fetish for dull eyed, big cheeked beauties.  

Silver Linings Playbook is the lighthearted feelgood story of a bipolar ex-teacher recently released from a mental hospital after viciously beating the man he discovered sleeping with his wife, who finds wacky oddball love with the widow of a dead cop who uses meaningless sex to fill the hole in her life. Nothing about that sentence isn't true in terms of the plot and the way it is presented, and that's my main problem with the movie. The tone is all over the place, and I never get the sense that the movie knows what it wants to be. I liked various moments here and there, but overall it felt like the comedic elements were always undercutting the dramatic elements, and vice versa. I want to like this movie more than I do, because in its disparate pieces I see a lot of potential, but much like another movie I saw and reviewed recently, Seven Psychopaths, those pieces don't really mean much if they never come together into a cohesive whole that I can enjoy. 

In a weird way, the story is basically what you would get if you were to take any Adam Sandler movie and try to take it seriously, extracting all the silliness and vulgar humor and replacing it with an indie hipster dramedy sensibility. The structure is right out of the Sandler stock cookie cutter outline, with the guy and girl falling in love amidst the many easily removable obstacles in their way, a major plot turn hinging on something as trifling as a belief in bad juju, and everything in the end riding on the outcome of the Big Something, in this case a local dance competition. The bad guy, if you can call him a bad guy, even dramatically shakes his fists in the air and screams "Noooo!" when he is thwarted, and of course we get our big climactic kiss when the thing we all knew would happen actually happens. Just as an experiment I appreciated the effort, but as a movie I just couldn't get on board with any of it. 

The acting is better than you would expect given the track record of the cast, but not to the point where I can say any of them have been redeemed for their poor reputations. Yes, Bradley Cooper is not as annoying as he was in the Hangover movies or the A Team (did you forget the A Team? Well I didn't. Fuck Bradley Cooper), Robert Deniro is closer to where he was before the Focker movies rotted his brain, Jennifer Lawrence isn't quite as wooden as she was in X Men: First Class or The Hunger Games, and Chris Tucker is, well, less Chris Tuckery than you've ever seen him. All that being said, to suggest that any of these performances are anything better than just okay, let alone Oscar-worthy, is a stretch. When Lawrence tries desperately to emote in the last act, I still couldn't help but laugh out loud, and if she wins best actress for this movie, it will make Marissa Tomei look like Meryl Streep. 

Bradley Cooper plays essentially a typical Sandler-esque protagonist, as if you were to take any of the SNL alum's characters and actually try to examine their behavior and psychology seriously and diagnose them. My intent is to walk softly on this subject, as I can't help but wonder how much of the depiction of mental illness in this movie is based on the director's real life notorious behind the scenes outbursts, or his experiences raising an autistic child. That being said, the movie does in effect make light of these kinds of behavioral conditions and never really tries to say anything deep or profound about them to compensate for the humor I'm evidently supposed to derive from these characters going comically crazy, so I don't know how much I should even be concerned with treading carefully. In the end, I think I would have liked to see more of the story relate to the main character's dealing with their emotional problems instead of forgetting that element for large swaths of the movie to fit in all the dancing montages and wackiness, or focus solely on the wackiness without the mention of serious mental issues. 

There are things to like about Silver Linings Playbook, but overall I felt they were far outweighed by the film's detriments. There's a good movie in here somewhere, but it gets lost with no sense of direction and a love for its own eccentric cuteness at the expense of a consistent tone. I haven't placed much stock in the Oscars as a mark of quality in many years, and keep in mind that my favorite movie of 2012 was about claymation pirates, but if I were a member of the Academy, I wouldn't waste my vote on this movie in any category. 


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