Thursday 7 February 2013

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

There seem to be two kinds of 'mental illness' films. Ones where the nutters get better and ones which seem to say mental illness doesn't exist. Personally I tend to go for the latter. Crazy people are fun to watch, that's a fact. They're more fun to watch than any ordinary arsehole being crazy because crazy people are genuinely unpredictable, capable of brutality or tenderness with the same stimulus depending on how they are internally at that point in time. For that reason, I like my nutters in film out and proud. Nutters don't like straightjackets. Take any nutter, ask them if they want to be cured or continue their conversations with the Archangel Gabriel, King Ferdinand and George Washington. Silver Linings Playbook wants to be cured. And it's cured alright.

David O. Russell is a nutter. Anybody who's seen Spanking the Monkey or I Heart Huckabees knows that. In particular, anybody who's seen his outburst at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees knows that (seriously, if you haven't seen it, GET ON IT I loved I Heart Huckabees, something about the completely absurd nature of it all. Something about Isabelle Huppert and Jason Schwartzman making out in the mud. Something about Naomi Watts acting the shit out of discovering her existence. I Heart Huckabees shows what film can be when continuity of a diegetic reality is prioritised over it's verimisimilitude. However it does of course have it's flaws, it's a pseudo-philosophical comedy of 90 minutes and to be honest, it's souffle light. And though, through the making of it Russell, by his own admission 'had [his] head up [his] ass', it's just so uninhibited and ridiculous that you can't help but go along with it's madness.

You'd assume mental illness would be a veritable banquet to a loony director. For the most part it is. But here we see a mid-forties Russell creating a broadly palatable movie for Harvey Weinstein and a North American distribution deal, pushing for a November release and awards season. As a result, there is enough to engage, relate and excite but it's all just a bit tame. It feels made to get a 90 in a test screening. Every detail ironed out within an inch of its life, transparent devices aplenty. An example, very specific tiny detail that typifies this is the especially grumpy final judge at the dance competition. As Pat Jr. runs around looking for Tiffany, scores are read out '75, 73, 76… 69'. Oh that grumpy judge, she doesn't have no love for nobody, Pat finds Tiffany, 'why you drinking girl?', '76,79,77… 70'. DAMN that grumpy judge, these stakes so high! You gonna be the end of us! Let's dance! Of course once Pat and Tiffany dance, this resolves itself the only way it can - '48, 49, 48… 54!?!?' YAYAYAYAY WHO WOULDA THUNK IT? OUR JOURNEY IS SO UNDENIABLY UPLIFTING EVEN GRUMPY JUDGE BECAME HAPPY FOR US!!! Odd detail to zone in on but it kinda typifies a formulaic attitude to raising the stakes of a climax with a transparent device that is so effective that nobody can resist the joy! Having said that, within context, to be honest I loved it.

In the opposite direction, what feels like the most obvious Chekhov's gun ever leaves quite early. It's Pat's emotional trigger, Stevie Wonder's Mon Cherie Amour, which is both his wedding song and the song his wife had playing when he found her cheating on him. Great, he's going to hear it in the climax and it'll put everything in jeopardy and yay, he'll go insane or learn to accept himself and his illness. But no, it was dispelled about 40 minutes into the film, gone forever. Good call.

A lot has been made of the performances and with good reason. Jennifer Lawrence is particularly good but you do get the feeling that sometimes she doesn't know why. De Niro and Weaver are unsurprisingly lovely. But a big problem was that I felt like Bradley Copper wasn't insane enough. He did all this work but he didn't get the fire behind the eyes, something manic people get, this fire that he didn't or couldn't go far enough to nail. What I'm saying is he didn't get ugly enough and that isn't limited to Cooper. The reality is for all the truth and verisimilitude, these are Lennon's 'beautiful people'. I find this distorted reality as distracting as some seem to find absurdism.

After seeing Silver Linings Playbook, a film about actually mentally ill people, it's clear that Russell is done with unbridled insanity. Sitting more comfortably alongside Three Kings and The Fighter than I Heart Huckabees and Spanking the Monkey. I suppose people will call Silver Linings Playbook a natural maturation and the arrival of a director whose promise has finally been realised. That's probably fair enough, he feels like he's making his way towards becoming a poor man's Scorsese. Similar attitudes to performances and camera movement are both evocative of a certain Scorsese aesthetic. It's particularly the control of the performances that lends a certain strength to the film. However, the handheld aesthetic, so in vogue in the American indie cinema of the 21st Century, can grate and feel unnecessary at times but it still preserves the punch and masculinity. Combined with the movement, it gives a certain look that I think may come to be considered (possibly unfairly) Russell's own.

This film is a nutter in a straitjacket. Every moment of imminent lunacy starts to inflate like a big red balloon only for Weinstein's pin of rom com formula come in and pop it. It feels like at the very least it could do with a padded cell, something to leap around and headbutt and punch and kick and vomit on. It's a film that feels like it wants to be let loose, it wants an extended sequence of delusion and depravity. Of course, it isn't there. And in a way, that's what makes this film what it is. Russell had his time in the mud and the murky depths of the mind and soul. Silver Linings Playbook is about quelling the insanity within by ultimately accepting it. In that it succeeds. But personally, I'm still interested in the other kind of mental illness film, the one that doesn't end with two beautiful people kissing on a couch in a harmonious family home.

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