It's a smooth gradient of film quality this week from best to worst. We start with Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison gushing over Silver Linings Playbook, follow that up with Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider warming to Rise of the Guardians, then Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade finally checks out Red Hook Summer and Ian Maddison returns to weigh in on Gambit, which finally got made.
EXPECTATIONS: The buzz surrounding this is very intriguing. An exploration of mental health issues wrapped up in a romantic comedy could either be exploitative and manipulative or it could end up being very sincere. In fact, anything less than completely sincere and this won't work at all. Mental illness is already a difficult subject to broach with any kind of sensitivity as it is, so fingers crossed.
The on-screen couple of the year.
REALITY: Phew! To say I'm relieved is an understatement. I'm thrilled. Ecstatic, in fact. Silver Linings Playbook is an incredibly honest and human portrayal of mental health issues that focuses as much on the romance as it does on a story of two generations of sufferers of mental illness attempting to connect with each other. It's also full of surprises from an absolutely stellar cast.
After serving an eight-month sentence in a mental hospital after viciously assaulting a man who was sleeping with his wife, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) returns to his family and sets out to repair himself and reconcile with his wife, who has a restraining order against him. His bipolar disorder proves to be difficult for his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) to live with, especially as his father is already struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder. After a dinner with some old friends, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow with as many mental problems as he has. They decide to help each other in a roundabout sort of way and end up practicing for a big dance competition that they have no hope of ever winning and maybe falling in love along the way.
I thought Murdock was the crazy one?As much as the formulaic rom-com elements do come into play, this film essentially uses them as a tool to tell its human story. We expect the formulaic romantic comedy to follow its preordained course because that's what formulaic romantic comedies do. It's basically a way for the film to put the audience at ease. You know you're in safe hands, it will end well, the title isn't misleading, relax. The film maintains this reassuring positivity at all times, which works in its favour.
At the heart of Silver Lining's Playbook are the relationships between Pat and Tiffany and Pat and his family, primarily his dad. These characters are all dealing with their own mental health issues and trying to live relatively normal lives in spite of them. Pat's dad, whose O.C.D. makes him extremely difficult to live with anyway, really wants to spend some quality time with his son, but then fills that time with tantrums about how to watch the football and things never go well. Tiffany, someone who has responded to the death of her husband by being sexually promiscuous, is really just looking for a friend who will provide some stability and understanding in her life, but her and Pat's issues collide and things never go well. That's how this film's first act plays out, by telling us that these problems are messy and difficult and that they often lead to unsatisfying emotional outbursts and things not going well.
I used the word "unsatisfying" not as a condemnation of the film, but as praise of its daring script. So many scenes start out with a promise of something, maybe some reconciliation between old friends or some bonding between father and son, but the issues of the characters lead to these situations devolving into pointless bickering, shouting and everybody losing control. The film goes on like this for some time, but it's surprisingly powerful. It's like the film itself needs to work out its issues in order to become a normal romantic comedy, just as Pat must work through his in order to become a normal person.
In the beginning, Pat alludes to having some special insight in between his mood swings* and says that his medication makes him "foggy," but he soon learns that building strong relationships and bringing some stability to his life is more important. The film itself, likewise, learns to become a more generic and normal rom-com because it realises the importance of pleasing its audience. That earlier insight is still there, but there's value in positivity and happy endings sometimes and this is definitely one of those times.
Remember when Robert De Niro was a great actor? Of course you do, because that's still now.One of the real treats of this film is its cast. Bradley Cooper's central performance is excellent, outshining even actress-of-the-moment Jennifer Lawrence. He takes us through this process of recovery with a lot of tenderness, from the downright frightening ferocity of his mood swings to his genuine affection for his friends and family that gets muddled in his mind. Humour is derided from his lack of tact and random outbursts, but he always plays it with weight and seriousness. Once you're done laughing, you realise that this isn't funny anymore, it's real.
Just as real is Robert De Niro, who proves that he can still be every bit as good as he used to be as he tackles Pat Sr.'s tantrums and obsessive behaviour. He's all at once paternal and dependent. The real standout surprise here, though, is someone I have yet to mention: Chris Tucker. He plays Danny, Pat's friend from the mental hospital, and it's an astonishingly honest performance. I would never have believed that the loudmouthed oaf from Rush Hour would be holding his own with Robert De Niro in scenes depicting mental illness in a very believable way. This is what happens when great actors get typecast; we automatically start to assume that they don't have any range. I hope Tucker goes on to appear in more films where he isn't Jackie Chan's sidekick.
I've seen some criticism of this film stating that the mental health issues are abandoned about halfway through in favour of the dance competition plot, but I think there's a certain naivety to that, which is exactly what this film highlights. You can live with mental illness. It's not easy. It takes a lot of effort and you have to take your medication. I think a lot of people wanted something a lot more grim, like Spider, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with a smile and a hope every now and then. As messages go, how can you possibly reject this one?
*As Pete Townsend once wrote "Sickness will surely take the mind where minds can't usually go."
MINORITY REPORT: Nothing I have read about Silver Linings Playbook has convinced me that it isn't secretly Rush Hour 4. Of course, I also haven't read about Jackie Chan being involved. Then again, no one is saying he isn't, either... - Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade
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