RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 9: David O Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)


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The Players…

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker, with Johnny Ortiz, Julia Stiles and Shea Wigham.


The Story…

After a stint in a psychiatric hospital, bipolar Pat has no choice but to move back in with his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed family. While he tries in vain to reconcile with his estranged wife, Pat meets Tiffany who’s just as unstable as he is. Like attracts like and all that. Tiffany hears Pat’s plight and offers him a deal: she’ll get in touch with his wife of him if he’ll do her a favor. Pat’ll do anything to fix his marriage, but wait…

Swing dancing? Really?


The Rant…

This may be my most personal review to date. Bear with me.

Two things before I get started. The first is practical. For the previous eight installments, I have based these reviews on the principle of “lack of box office mojo either/or of dubious reputation.” From now on, I shall refer to this criterion simply as “The Standard.” It’ll save time, and for those who need an explanation, please read my homepage. Don’t forget to Like it.

The second thing is trying to explain away how an Oscar-winning film like Silver Linings Playbook meets The Standard. I mean, it cleaned up at the box office. It earned several accolades. The star of the freakin’ Hangover films got an Oscar nod, before God. How does this movie meet the criteria?

The subject matter. A lot of folks who saw the film (at least folks I met) claimed that although the movie was good, Cooper’s acting was overreaching. His manic delivery was exactly the stuff of the Method, and I guess current audiences find that old hat. It works, yes, but these days people with a vestigial attention span demand the shiny. It’s still entertaining though, even if wide of the mark. Then again, what do the majority of filmgoers know what it’s like to endure a manic episode? Right.

Mental illness has long been a favorite well for Hollywood to dip from. Whether it’s Ordinary People for survivor’s guilt, The Deer Hunter for PTSD or The Silence Of The Lambs for sociopathy, crazy sells well at the ticket taker. The stuff’s a guilty pleasure for the gentry. It’s like the car wreck on the highway. You just gotta look—be witness to the wreck and ruin—and at the near back of your mind thank your lucky stars that that ain’t you. Being in the presence of an individual suffering from mental illness, be it depression, bipolar disorder, even outright psychosis is akin to the car wreck scenario. Sure, you’ll sneak a peek, but you’ll then recoil and be glad to not get any of it on you. It’s sort of a malign guilty pleasure for most.

Most well-healed folks figure they don’t ever have to worry about the crazy label. Life is normal for them, or for whatever passes for normal. Yet there are thousands of people out there who have to deal with the misfiring spark plugs upstairs every waking moment, yet still have to maintain a life. They don’t necessarily suffer in silence, but feel silenced all the same, especially against all those stares. Unless such sh*t ends up on the cover of People—and Heaven forbid Kim and Kanye’s spawn grow up to suffer from an eating disorder—then it’s in the public interest. Following that lead, how’s that for a dubious reputation?

As I was saying, Playbook made some waves with its depiction of bipolar disorder suffered by the lead Cooper. From personal experience, I say its depiction was straight on. This may get a little too personal, even for a blog, but I don’t really care. Others, I have found, have posted far more intimate and nuttier stuff than I would ever regard as appropriate. You ever truly look deeply at some of these profile and/or cover pictures? I mean, c’mon.

I suffer from bipolar disorder. Don’t laugh; I’m serious. I have a constant, intrusive internal monologue, often puking out into an external one. There’s the racing thoughts. The low-level paranoia. The occasional raging. The often crushing depression. It’s all there everyday for me, America, and for thousands of others, too. Like Pat, only therapy and meds make life work, and only in a wobbly way at that. It’s tough. And surprisingly enough, Cooper earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal. Yeah, best actor and alla dat.

Why should I say surprisingly? C’mon, this guy made a fortune portraying a guy slogged off on roofies and/or booze for three films for f*ck’s sake. What the hell business does he have starring in an Oscar-nominated film?

Because he sold it. Because he earned it. Because he got it right…


Pat Solitano, Jr. (Cooper) has just spent eight months in a Baltimore sanitarium. Better that than instead going to jail for beating the ever-loving sh*t out of his wife’s erstwhile lover. Understandable. The diagnosis comes clean. Pat has suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. For a while now. Prone to erratic behavior and fits of rage. Since being hopped up on drugs, therapy and isolation, he finally earns release into the hands of his Philadelphia Eagles fanatic family of superstitious dad (DeNiro), struggling referee mom (Weaver) and good son Jake (Wigham). Now dealing with these three in full force, Baltimore seems preferable.

Pat delves into books and in-group double speak (“Excelsior!”), not-so-secretly plotting to reconnect with his estranged wife Nikki (Brea Bee, a name I refuse to believe is real). He wears his wedding band as a totem, waving it to all willing to watch, as a claim on a life that, frankly, has all but evaporated.

It’s only after an offhand encounter with old buddy Ronnie (Ortiz) and his bitchy wife Veronica (Stiles, who’d I wish to fall on a red hot poker) that Pat accepts a dinner invite and meets Veronica’s screwed up dancer of a little sis Tiffany (Lawrence). She’s been going through some issues of her own. Being distraught and remorseful for her husband’s death, and engaging in a rather dubious mourning recovery, Tiffany inadvertently holds out her hand for Pat’s support.

At first, the already damaged Pat is reluctant to help. However Tiffany offers up a deal. Pat’s wife is off limits due to a restraining order, effectively barring all contact. But Tiff knows Nikki, and can get a message to her proclaiming Pat’s new lease on life. In return for this little subterfuge, Tiffany has always wanted to compete in this dance competition and needs a partner. Quid pro quo.

And here’s where things get sticky, even after Baltimore…


Playbook was a smart, humorous and at times intense movie. A hard combo to work with. According to the dailies, it took director Russell 20 rewrites over five years to get the film just right. Good Lord. It worked though.

Playbook is a mass character study, so we’re gonna talk about our cast. A lot. First, Bradley Cooper really surprised me, just as much as most other critics were (who, unlike yours truly, actually get paid to do this sh*t). His depiction of bipolar disorder was spot f*cking on. The raging, the paranoia, the endless hang-ups. The label of being f*cking nuts. All there. As if to accentuate Pat’s struggles, it rather hurt when in the film the local law came to harass and/or bully poor Pat over the head about his restraining order. Sometimes it felt for just him it being out in public was enough for a drubbing. Car wreck culture and all. Ugh. Even if your brain is firing on all cylinders, it’s hard to watch. It’s also a great method employing “show, don’t tell,” and with a character study, you gotta show a lot of face time.

Something else key was apparent that I often bitch about for lack of in these posts: good pacing. Nothing in Playbook felt rushed. The story folded out as easily as a box of Kleenex, minus the lint. Two-plus hours stretched gracefully into a good evening’s entertainment. Face it, when you’re spending your free time on a film heavy on mental illness it better flow smoothly. Hell, that’s all I (or anyone else) should ask for.

In addition to the excellent pacing, of course the acting was great. There were no minor characters in the film. I know that follows the old saw of there being no small parts, but with Playbook each role was crucial in mirroring Pat’s new life post-hospitalization. A lot of films of this nature have roles that drop off the map halfway through the feature. Not here. “Lesser” roles like Ronnie and his patient therapist Dr. Patel offered insight and warmth (not necessarily sympathy) to Pat’s struggles. It’s a contained circle, one you get comfortable with as it creates a real sense of closure as the film winds down.

Other touches work well to reflect Pat’s picking up the pieces. The choice of music for instance (a pet cinematic enhancement of mine) was exceptional. Led Zep makes for the ideal soundtrack for a mental meltdown. And if your heart doesn’t crack a little for the sequence accompanied by Bob Dylan’s and Johnny Cash’s duet of “Girl From the North Country,” you have no soul (it’s from Nashville Skyline by the way. Go buy the damned album).

Considering the rest of the noteworthy cast, Chris Tucker is a stitch, but not in his mouthy Rush Hour style. He’s the lingering vestige of the sh*t Pat had to deal with and suck up to in Baltimore. He keeps popping up in Pat’s life on the outside not as the Magic Negro, but perhaps as a reminder as to what he was trying to leave behind, despite the fact it’s still stuck in his BP rattled head. He also ends up teaching Pat all about groove. This is important. Delightfully so.

DeNiro was also nominated for an Oscar in this one. It’s the first worthwhile role he’s played in along time, and for his limited screen time, Russell brings out the best in him. Although it takes several scenes, it becomes easy to understand why he got the nod. He’s brusque, he’s hammy, he’s f*cking petulant. He may have inadvertently contributed to Pat’s undoing, him being all superstitious and OCD. Always gambling. He took a gamble on Pat and ostensibly lost. Many times. Bob does lot of pure acting with just his scowly yet puppy dog jowls of his. Haven’t seen that since Casino. I could go on, but it would ruin the sub-plot.

Oddly, Weaver got an Oscar nomination too, although at first it’s hard to figure why. She doesn’t have many lines, and her screen time seems limited to only when Pat and/or his dad are roiling in their own psychological juices. However, she also seems to be the only one who is pointedly aware and truly sympathetic to what Pat has gone and still is going through. Pat’s her son after all. Understanding is crucial in the healing process, and you need that kind of presence to make the story have a tonic to the continuous conflict. In that light, Weaver is in the Goldilocks zone.

And lastly, Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany. Ah, her. She won the Oscar, you know. Her Tiffany is nuts, just stark-raving oozing kooky nuts. But just to watch her…I’ll be crude. No I won’t. You can be crude. But hell, she can act, all fiery without chewing scenery and hold her own as if she wrote the script. She has confidence and a strong presence that permeates every scene she’s in, eclipsing star Cooper at times. Simultaneously, she has a particular vulnerability that, if employed in other films, may come across as mawkish. Here it generates a feeling not exactly of compassion, but one more of relatability despite the extraordinary circumstances handed to her. And she can dance. And run at a good clip, too. And oddly enough, heh-heh, so can Pat, just don’t take her to a diner on a first date. You just gotta see it to get it.

I have next to no carps with this movie. Save a Hollywood ending, Playbook was truly compassionate in its execution and acting. Is it because I’m sympathetic? Well, yeah. But only because here’s a film that depicts a hairy subject 90% correct. The remaining 10% is courtesy of Tinsel Town, cuz sumpin’s gotta sell tickets. The story is the car-wreck scenario, but tempered with just enough sugar with the urine that an audience can feel empathy rather than unease or scorn towards the psychologically challenged. It’s simply a cagey nevertheless excellently staged film

Yeah, excellently staged. Smart dialogue. Solid acting. Hall rented. Orchestra engaged. Now it’s time to see if you can dance.

If only somebody had told Lawrence to mind the step.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It earned the Oscar nominations for a reason. Plus renting it’ll keep the rabid, demon, flying monkeys in my head at bay.


Stray Observations…

  • “DeSean Jackson is the man.” Of that I have no doubt.
  • Jennifer Lawrence stares really well. She never seems to blink. Maybe it’s how she nabbed that Oscar. Hell, it worked for Anthony Hopkins, but then again, she has better cleavage. Way better cleavage.
  • “You have poor social skills. You have a problem.”
  • It seems that a small portion of this film was good promo for an iPod. The movie was made in 2012. Who didn’t have an iPod by then? (For those who don’t, just shut up.)
  • For the record, it’s pronounced ‘conk,’ not ‘conch’.
  • “Slow down, Raisin Bran.”

Next Installment…

Robert DeNiro asks the immortal question, What Just Happened?


 

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