A Postmodern Comedy for a Postmodern Year of Film

Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell – 2012

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A Foreward: The critical mind of late (and by late I am only referring to film criticism, for this attitude has been a staple of modern thought for over a century) has been one which values originality over quality. Getting there first simply has more value than getting there with a better product. So Valentine’s Day (2010) will always be compared negatively to Love Actually (2003) and thus will be seen as a bad movie despite being a decent film in its own right. Infamous (2006) will never be given the credit its due because it was released the year after 2005’s, Oscar winning, Capote. With this review (and pioneered with my last for Django), I intend to put forward a different philosophy of film. Style is more important than originality. If you are be able to know or predict every aspect of a film’s plot before having seen it, if it is a great film; that should not matter. The greatest films are ones that can be seen again and again because the quality of the filmmaking evokes the same, or greater, emotional responses every time you see them.

Silver Lining’s Playbook is directed by David O. Russell (known for his idiosyncratic style in films like Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and The Fighter) and stars Bradley Cooper (from The Hangover) Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, and The Hunger Games) and Robert De Niro. Cooper plays a man diagnosed with a bipolar spectrum disorder named Pat who has been let out of a Mental Hospital after an eight month period mandated by the courts. He had found his wife cheating on him with another man and nearly beat the man to death. When out of the hospital he tries to prove that he has reformed himself to win his wife back. He meets Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, who also suffers from a mental disorder and the two develop a friendship. The film deals with many aspects of Pat and Tiffany’s families and how they deal with mental illness. The film would appear to be a standard romantic comedy with Cooper obsessed with getting his wife back and eventually falling for Tiffany. However, the way the film is constructed makes you not care about knowing what’s coming. Russell’s style is fresh and gorgeous, and he gets three of the best performances out of any actors this year.

The key to this film is the Lawrence/Cooper relationship. In career high the two have a chemistry that is difficult to understand and yet effortless for the two actors. Cooper both reminds you of the people in your life that you just don’t understand, and brings you to understand the struggle that can be associated with having a mental illness. Lawrence  brings a both a more serious and strangely more humorous character to the mix, playing off of and relating to Cooper while not letting him get away with being a complete jerk and blaming it on his illness. The third performance of note is Robert De Niro. With all of the terrible films he has been in lately, this is a nice change of pace. He, Cooper, and Shea Whigham (who plays Cooper’s brother) work off each other to the point where you start believing that these people grew up together.

The only complaint from the performances was that I wanted to see more of two actors. Anupam Kher who plays Cooper’s therapist is brilliantly funny and relatable and steals most of the scenes he is in. There was also Julia Stiles who plays Lawrence’s sister. The dry wit she became famous for through films like 10 Things I Hate About You, is on great display here and at certain points you get the feeling she could have played Lawrence’s role. She’s a great talent that we really don’t see enough of.

The two most notable aspects besides the performances were easily the Cinematography and Soundtrack. The song choices are always perfectly suited to what’s going on on screen and really pull off the effect of adding an atmosphere to scenes that need them. The cinematography is understated but gives us a medium that allows for a real understanding of Cooper’s experience. Moments when he gets agitated are canted and random. But more effectively, when he starts to feel one of his manic spells coming on, an effect is added to the shot and the sound mix to put us right where Cooper is, in complete distress and claustrophobically searching for relief. We feel that with him, something that isn’t always easy to put on screen. Finally there are sequences involving dancing between Cooper and Lawrence that are shot to get the emotion on their faces rather than the style of their dancing. It shows a friendship building and turning into a romance, but again the way it is done trumps that the plot has been used before.

This is a postmodern comedy for a postmodern year in film. From the main characters all having mental illnesses to way those illnesses are displayed on screen, Russell takes what could have been another standard love story, and gives us classic characters in a style that allows us to relate to them, even if the viewer doesn’t have any experience with mental illness.

While not better than Django, Silver Linings Playbook also deserves a number of Oscar nominations and wins. At the moment I feel it deserves Best Actress (for Lawrence, although I still have to see Zero Dark Thirty, and I love Jessica Chastain), and Sound Mixing, with nominations for Picture, Director, Actor (for Cooper), supporting Actor (for De Niro), Cinematography and Adapted Screenplay. More so than I Heart Huckabees this films has a heart that can be understood by a mass audience. Russell may have toned down his idiosyncrasy for this one, but it worked to his benefit, showing that he is a remarkably and diversely talented filmmaker.

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