Thursday, 24 January 2013

It’s all wrong, but it’s (supposed to be) all right….

Silver Linings Playbook: directed by and written by David O. Russell

I’m finding it increasingly difficult to manifest my reaction towards the films I’ve seen in the last few months into words (it’s why I’m sitting on two dozen reviews). Silver Linings Playbook is an especially difficult case both because of the film itself and because of the public consciousness surrounding the film. And in an Oscar season (I can’t ignore the elephant in the room) hurtling towards a potentially toxic close, diplomacy – or, at least precision – in my words is essential. So…what better to encapsulate my feelings than a scene that best explain my issues?

As Silver Linings Playbook moves into its final third the majority of the cast gathers in protagonist’s Pat house after a football game. Some perspective: Pat is a man with rage issues and a bipolar disorder for which he reluctantly receiving treatment and back living with his parents after beating up a man his wife was cheating on him with. Eight months after a stint in institute care he is still beholden to her, even though there is restraining order out on him. His goodly mother, having sprung him from psychiatric care, is trying to make the living at home situation work, a tenuous dance with the bipolar Pat and his superstitious, gambling father who is terribly attached to this football team and the bets he makes on them. The scene in question comes after a loss at a football game (and a simultaneous bet) and to salvage the issues his father is dealing with a parlay is made where Pat and a dance competition he’s preparing for with fellow mentally unstable Tiffany becomes collateral in a misguided bet. It’s a very key moment in the film because it moves two potentially divergent acts into convergence as we move into the coda. And, it’s telling when as an audience member what I feel watching this moment is not anticipation at seeing the result but incredulous disbelief. How could these formerly caring parents thrust that level of responsibility on Pat? Why is Pat Sr being encouraged to continue his debilitating gambling habit? Why doesn’t anyone seem worried at the potential fall-out of pressuring this stringently bipolar man? Why is Tiffany there? And, why should I feel invested in this movement when Russell seems to be adding a “solution” to the film for plot movement and not for truth to his narrative?

I’m not wont to throw around the word contrived when referring to plot-points, simply because the very act of any artwork is essentially contrived. But, as I watched things play out it was not only that I did not believe the actions the characters were making but they seemed to be in contention with the film they were in and the time we’d previously spent with them. 2012 cinema has depended significantly on characters doing things I’d raise my eyebrows at and the key to making the "implausible" work is in realising that within the frame of a two-hour film character traits but not necessarily be immediately telegraphed to the audience but must seem compatible throughout the narrative. Allow me to make for one of the most random reference points, but in its tone Silver Linings Playbook seems to be a cinematic brother to its fellow Best Picture nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both Zeitlin and Russell adopt a penchant for using the issues of their characters to justify certain oddities in their film. The unpredictability of Pat’s condition allows Russell to carve a film that’s equally unpredictable to the point of being inconsistent not just in narrative, but tonally; and the juxtaposition of the different forms ends up feeling more false than profound. Is it impossible to mix a lithe romantic formula with a heavier mental health issue? Perhaps, perhaps not. I don’t know. But if there is I feel that this is not the way to do so.

I realise – and even hesitantly applaud – that Russell is attempting something difficult here. Mental illness portrayal on screen is difficult enough without trying to make things palatable without being condescending. And, I know, the truth of Russell’s son having bipolar disorder is bandied about as definitive proof that – certainly – his perspective on the issue could be neither deficient nor unsuccessful. I do not doubt that his heart is in the right place, nor that his intentions are fine but I’m reacting to what I see before me – not the peripherals. True, I realise that its use of the disease is more for entertainment than enlightenment (although, key examples of bipolar used excellently as a means of entertainment and enlightenment look at Shameless and Homeland) but the way the more pressing issues of Pat’s situations seem to become increasingly more trivial as time wears on smarts. It’s a tic that shows because the film opens on this very issue which theoretically sets the tone for a film concerned with that aspect and when it doesn’t make good on that I feel robbed. Pat’s issues appear pronounced at Russell’s whim and at moments where they would destroy the conceit of the narrative are significantly absent, even when the absence is glaring. (For example, moments of being used as a pawn in his father’s gambling, realising he’s been lied to at the film’s end all yield no indication of a mentally deficient man.) Story thrusts, then, seem to happen solely for plot propellants and not for character development. I will not say that Russell’s screenplay is terrible, but it feels to me so decisively undiscerning and oftentimes forced that it is unable to match its reach to its grasp. There are smaller beats which when they work are on-point – the family dynamics with Pat and his parents ring true (which makes that moment where Pat’s mental issues are used as collateral for his father’s hobby that much more perplexing), a dinner with Tiffany’s sister gives a brief, but effective, glimpse of filial relationships but the whole of it feels unproductive. Russell seems to be aiming to show that with all that’s wrong in the world there is still goodness to excise and the suggestion seems false here. favourite performance of the film.... issues with the rest...after the jump...

With the script at the centre, the rest of the film seems to be trying to maintain itself against it and it's immediately worrisome that even visually it’s something a mixed bag. I suspect that Russell means for the frenetic camerawork to come off as a view into Pat’s own brain and in theory the gamble should make the sense – the coalescing of various discordant elements of Pat’s life being manifested in the zany camerawork represents the sameness in the story elements itself but the effect wears thin soon, especially as direct interest in that arc dissipates before the film’s end. The circling camera around Pat’s head starts off seeming imaginative but soon wafts into repetitious. The direction is so violently erratic (like the erratic ways of Pat it’s easy to forgive Russell for this) and the camera is so stridently unhelpful with its inconsistency that the weight of the effect is left to the actors and even as I am dubious of considering the ensemble work as entirely successful it is easily the finest aspect of the film. It’s curious that with a conflicting script and with technical aspects that do not help Silver Linings Playbook still manages to put forth an effective lead performance in the form of Bradley Cooper’s Pat. The entire cast is game, but the profundity of Cooper’s performance makes the film even more frustrating because the promise of this adult man working through his adult issues while addled with an unfortunate disease thrill more than the film I’m presented with.
Let me invoke Beasts again. Like that film, Silver Linings Playbook hopes to gain its ultimate sleight of hand by being a film which moves us and the story issues become such a craw in my tooth because they are the reasons I cannot be moved. I feel for Pat, and Cooper’s performance touches me but the story he is in does not. The moments where the film should land to do not enthuse me enough and the climatic moments just do not work – specifically, they don’t work for me. And, it’s not that it was bad but at the end when gauntlets had been thrown down and climaxes had been met I just wanted to scream at it – “I don’t believe you. I just don’t.” Because I didn’t. I wanted to like it because a well orchestrated romantic comedy does tend to make me feel all warm inside. I like that feeling. Russell and his film didn’t give me that. I wanted to like it more but in its examination of a romance between the bipolar Pat and “depressed” Tiffany Russell’s account of an unlikely romance between two “unlikely” become a film which frustrated me more than pleased me, I found myself feeling more dubious than moved and at the end I did not believe in it. The conceit of the coda felt hollow, the movement towards the dénouement felt unearned. True, it amused me and yes it was amiable but the whole was never enough.

I really liked Pat, though.


Disclaimer: This has been another entry in the Andrew, why can't you stop writing set of reviews


Brittani Burnham said...

That's really interesting. I absolutely loved the film, and it never occured to me that it would be odd for Pat's parents to all of a sudden trust that kind of responsiblity to him. It's nice to see it from a different point of view.

Nick Prigge said...

See, the very scene you take issue with is a scene that I absolutely loved and is the scene that I think completely undercuts the sentimentality argument that other detractors of the film are employing.

You call the parents "caring" but I would vigorously argue that's not true - well, let me rephrase, I would argue that Pat Sr. is not caring. (Pat Sr.'s wife, I think, is someone who defers to her husband's judgment). At least, not COMPLETELY caring, as the movie demonstrates again and again he looks at his son as sort of Philadelphia Eagles voodoo doll and that's EXACTLY how he's using him in that bet that sets up the pivotal sequence.

This is a whole band of crazy people manipulating one another until what's really important comes into focus in the coda. I concede it's not necessarily a realistic or insightful portrayal of bi-polar or depression, but I also don't think that is ever Russell's aim.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I almost agree 100%, although I wouldn't say that the parents are consistently caring, and the one that is (Jacki Weaver) does raise objections to the bet. The reason why I object to that scene, however, is that it feels like a last-minute attempt to inject some sort of plot and resolution at the end, as though the cornered writer just looked at those pages of yelling and fighting at a football game and thought, "Fuck. Now what? LET'S PUT ON A SHOW!"

But Bradley Cooper is INCREDIBLE and his Oscar nomination made me happy and he shoulda won the Globe and and and....

Suzy said...

I didn't think I'd like this film but to my surprise I enjoyed it. I thought the cast were excellent (however I don't understand Weaver's Oscar nom.)

The film has heart but I thought it did stagnate from the football scene onwards & the storyline felt contrived.

A shame really as the beginning was interesting.

Harry said...

Have you read the novel? Keep in mind that the screenplay is actually based on a previous work, so perhaps Russell was just trying to stay true to the original work?

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Harry - from what I've read, the entire last act is unique to the film

Yojimbo_5 said...

Yeah, I'm with you here. And Cooper was the best thing in the movie, although most of the performances were quite good.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

brittani it's an entirely personal thing (like many review) but the level to which small issues like that completely removed me from the fabric of the film encapsulated why i guess, it just wasn't for me.

nick at least we like cooper, right? i'd be more inclined to buy your the parents are not good people thing if the film's final third doesn't seem to be revelling in - things are crazy bad, but these band of people are good and happy. and, who's to say that's still NOT the underlying message right? still, the promise of a film about badly intentioned intrigues me, and i don't feel that's what he was doing.

on the focus, i think russell was caught in a tough position. and the entire first half hour at least seems to be setting me up for at least somewhat about the issues of a bipolar man. but, i don't know if that was just because of my interest in it.

walter that, too. but i couldn't find a way to word it properly. yes, it seems *yikes* "contrived"? tiffany storming into the house and then confessing that she knows all these things because she "did her research" just smacks of convenience way too much for me to invest.

suzy i keep trying to make sense of weaver's nomination. she's lovely with what she does (so warm), but i'm trying to imagine why she got #1 votes. arguably one of the most surprising inclusions for acting in my lifetime. to me at least.

harry i don't think him adapting what just turned out to be flaws in the novel is a valid reason for defending russell, though. if he's adapting something i'll have to criticise issues even if they did come from the source material.

yojimbo the performances were good, they don't cross the boundary into great (and i tend to like the small performances - stiles, whigham more than the big ones like deniro and lawrence) but they feel lived in and real.