Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012)
Dir. Tom Hooper 

4 out of 5 

Familiarity is both an asset and an obstacle for Les Misérables, Oscar winner Tom Hooper's adaptation of the beloved, long-running stage musical based on Victor Hugo's novel about the underclass of post-Napoleonic France.  Rumblings regarding a film version began shortly after its 1987 Broadway debut and continued as the show's sweeping anthems seeped their way into pop culture through appropriation and parody in places as unexpected as South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.  All that time in development hell, however, has allowed for a certain amount of product saturation to set in among its target demographic:  the rabid and organically expanding fanbase that has devoured the cast recordings, the anniversary concerts, and the national tours, not to mention the original's impressive 16-year run on Broadway.  

I am one of what feels like the last few remaining people on Earth who had never heard or seen anything Les Mis-related before Hooper's film. And though I'd like to think my relative innocence gives me a unique perspective, it really only means I may only judge its success as a movie and not as an adaptation, much less a "musical phenomenon."  And you know what?  I liked what I saw in Les Misérables.  Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a principled man sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  The lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) releases Valjean but vows to hunt him down when he breaks parole, beginning a decades-spanning game of cat-and-mouse.  Along the way, Valjean becomes the adoptive father of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the illegitimate daughter of factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and gets swept up in the patriotic fervor of student revolutionaries Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit).

For anyone familiar with the stage version, the plot will undoubtedly be their strongest bearing as they adjust to the unorthodox choices made in this story's translation to the screen.  Hooper ditches the conventions of the proscenium-bound stage and attacks Les Mis with a style best described as "aggressively cinematic."  Shooting his actors among cramped quarters with long, unbroken close-ups, the vibe is closer to that of a grubby period drama than a lavish, decadent musical (a choice I found appropriate, given the tone of the source material).  In what is perhaps Hooper's lone concession to Les Mis' stage roots, he recorded the cast's vocals live on set rather than having them lip-synch to a studio recording.  It admittedly takes some getting used to - it sounds tinny at first, and not every performer is up to the challenge vocally - but eventually pays off with highlights like Hathaway's powerhouse rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" and the showstopping double climax of "One Day More" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

Maybe we'll never fully understand how a dense pop opera that hinges upon an obscure republican revolution in 19th century France morphed into the quintessence of modern musical theater, but I'll be damned if Les Misérables doesn't give its audience a good sense of the alchemy going on here.  Not all of the choices are sound (Crowe is a conspicuous outlier in terms of singing ability, but I'd argue that the role requires someone with his strong acting chops) and, like many musical plots, it relies on a variety of quickly-developed contrivances and lapses in rational thought.  And even without an intermission, it feels every bit as long as its 150-minute running time promises.  At the end of the day, the brilliant score and dynamic lyricism of creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (who co-scripted the film with William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer) supersedes most of the film's weaknesses.  Les Misérables is a stirring triumph that combines classic songwriting with ambitious direction, a film that appropriately breaks from the conventions of a theatrical production while preserving its emotional essence and a film that connected with me in spite of my skepticism.  It felt like discovering the warm, satisfying comforts of home, hearth, family, and friendship after a long night journey - ultimately, isn't that what Les Mis is all about?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

John Dies at the End (2012)

John Dies at the End (2012)
Dir. Don Coscarelli

4 out of 5

The sharpest criticism I can give John Dies at the End, a new horror-comedy from cult favorite Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, the Phantasm series), is also, I suspect, the greatest compliment - it’s spectacularly disorganized.  Chaotic in the best possible way, the occult buddy flick is a raucously weird trip through a wonderfully askew universe reminiscent of Buckaroo Banzai that constantly has the audience guessing where it’ll go next.  And much like Banzai, it revolves around a Caucasian hero with a curiously Asian name:  David Wong (Chase Williamson), a twentysomething Everyman whose glib buddy John (Rob Mayes) goads him into trying a new mind-expanding drug called “Soy Sauce,” unaware that it’s known to suddenly bestow precognitive abilities on certain users.  Soon after receiving his new psychic awareness, David is reluctantly drawn into defending our world from an invasion by the hellish beings of an alternate dimension.

That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the movie’s nuttiness, all stemming from a non-linear construction that also includes a frame story of David telling his tale to a skeptical journalist (Paul Giamatti, who also produced) and glimpses of John and David’s future as low-rent monster hunters.  (The title is just another way of cheekily flouting convention and is assuredly not a spoiler, though the fact of John’s existence remains a moving target.)  Apart from the easy chemistry between Williamson and Mayes, John sketches a deep and inscrutable mythology through supporting turns from cultishly-adored actors such as Doug Jones, Glynn Turman, and Clancy Brown.  Everybody but David, a classic audience surrogate, seems to have privileged information about what’s going on, especially Brown, a celebrity magician who literally vanquishes monsters over the phone.  But the farther afield it gets, the more fun is found in simply sitting back and watching the mayhem unfold.

Some might see the story's tricky structure - from the eponymous novel by the “real” David Wong that weaves a demonic folklore throughout its drop-ins on the two heroes’ lives - as an encumbrance.  While it’s possible to lose the thread of the film’s time-skipping narrative, credit is due to Coscarelli for infusing it with his typical anything-goes enthusiasm and devising imaginative ways to depict the book’s woolly, off-kilter style in appropriately cinematic ways, including a brief animated interlude.  It is plainly obvious from the tacky CGI and nondescript locations that Coscarelli doesn’t quite have the budget he needs to give the film a full polish, something he knows all too well as an independent film lifer, though it should be noted that the movie's physical creature creations are still top-notch.  However, I doubt that it will matter to genre fans who will happily trade glossy production value for a unique directorial vision applied to a ripping yarn.  In many ways, John Dies at the End is representative of the Coscarelli filmmaking philosophy, a quirky delight pitched directly to moviegoers that don't mind setting out without a roadmap or even a destination, so long as they are surprised and delighted by the journey.

Monday, December 24, 2012

West of Memphis (2012)

West of Memphis (2012)
Dir. Amy Berg

4 out of 5

The case of the “West Memphis Three” is well-trodground.  Not only was it exhaustivelyexamined by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in their Paradise Now trilogy, but it’s also the subject of a newdocumentary, West of Memphis,directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) and co-produced by Hollywood mogul Peter Jackson.  But unlike Berlinger and Sinofsky’slongitudinal study – which encompasses three separate films that aired on HBOover the past 15 years – West of Memphisis a testament to the influence that outside parties have had over theevolution of the case from local miscarriage of justice to international causecélèbre attracting the attention of advocates like like Pearl Jam frontmanEddie Vedder, punk icon Henry Rollins, and Jackson and his spouse, FranWalsh. 

West ofMemphis begins with a necessary rehashing of the facts.  Sometime on a spring evening in 1993, threeeight-year-old boys were murdered in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis,Arkansas.  Their naked bodies were foundsubmerged in a drainage ditch, their hands and feet bound with their ownshoelaces.  Claiming that the bodies alsoshowed signs of sexual mutilation, the authorities quickly and somewhatbafflingly came to the conclusion that the murders were part of a satanicritual.  Three local teenagers – DamienEchols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin – were convicted of the crime andsentenced to life in prison, save Echols, who was sentenced to death for hisalleged role as “mastermind” and leader of a secret devil-worshipping cabal.

The police’s jump to Satanism as motive resemblesa twisted version of that Sherlock Holmes axiom: When you have eliminated theimpossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  Except, argues Berg, when you fail to exhaustall probable explanations.  West of Memphis doesn’t dwell so much onwhy these three particular people were railroaded beyond being poor outcasts inthe middle of the Bible Belt with dark tastes in music and fiction.  Instead, it focuses on mistakes made in thecriminal investigation and the state’s willful ignorance of evidence thatpoints to a different perpetrator – Terry Moore, the stepfather of one of themurdered boys.  Though he was neverformally considered a suspect by the state, the filmmakers dig up manyacquaintances who attest to past instances of Moore’s violent and abusivebehavior.  

Besides strongly suggesting Moore’s guilt, thefilm also includes well-researched refutations of the evidence used to convictthe Three; for example, a trip to a turtle farm shows how the supposedlysatanic mutilations were likely caused by animals scavenging the bodiespost-mortem.  If there’s a weak link,it’s in the emphasis on the case as a slow-burning cultural phenomenon.  Berg and Jackson completely miss the irony ofaccused “cult leader” Echols using his considerable charisma to attract celebrityattention to his cause, his letters from prison read at benefit rallies by thelikes of Vedder and Johnny Depp.  Thoughthe film’s main agenda is exoneration, it’s also about the lionization ofEchols (who nabs a co-producer credit), which seems inappropriate given the minimalinformation presented about the othertwo men who have also languished behind bars for over 18 years.  Still, Westof Memphis is a rousing call-to-arms that convincingly presents its doubtsabout the case without wringing its hands about the efficacy of the entirejustice system, so long as there are people willing to fight for what is right.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

5 out of 5

Three years after crafting the ultimate revenge fantasia in the bloody revisionist masterpiece Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino tops himself with Django Unchained, a spaghetti western that finds the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) wandering the antebellum South alongside German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in search of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  And while there was no shakier proposition than a bawdy response to the stolid traditions and victimhood of Holocaust dramas, Django immediately feels like a film that’s right in Tarantino’s wheelhouse.  The western genre already has a long history of violent, outré films made by maverick auteurs (a legacy that Django freely references, beginning with naming its protagonist after the archetypical hero of countless spaghetti westerns) and the director has made a career out of examining how codes of justice clash within lawless systems.  Still, it’s exhilarating to see how easily Tarantino knocks it out of the park while using one of the ugliest eras in American history as a sandbox for his brand of kinetic postmodern filmmaking.

Perhaps that’s simply the mark of a master storyteller, as Django Unchained is truly the stuff of legend.  The film makes its case as a brilliant inversion of the Old South’s chivalrous self-mythologizing, featuring an abolitionist outsider mentoring a black hero as he develops the skill and courage to rescue his damsel in distress.  Django’s quest is further juxtaposed with the odious prejudices and shameful cruelties of southern slaveholding society, witnessed in full force at the plantation of sadistic planter Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, at his finest).  His estate – ironically dubbed “Candyland” – is infiltrated by Django and Schultz when they discover that Broomhilda is a captive there, leading to a shootout that recalls Scarface as much as Sergio Leone.  But there’s no doubt that Django earns its bloodshed.  Tarantino’s script builds up to it masterfully and contains about as many verbal confrontations as physical ones – the former courtesy of Waltz, once again displaying his gift for delivering the famously verbose filmmaker’s magnificent dialogue.

Django Unchained is a testament to the artfulness tucked away inside forbidden pleasures: the thinking person’s exploitation film.  It suggests that Tarantino, the ultimate fanboy, has continued his maturation into a thoughtful and discriminating professional.  Without losing the shit-kicking verve and obsession with repurposing cultural junk that made him famous, he uses the catharsis of fiction in Django to illuminate a bleak historical fact and amortize the emotions that weren’t fully captured in the written record.  This also allows the film to portray extreme racism and misogyny as part of its historical context, but that’s more of an observation than a criticism.  As Django comes to realize, revenge itself is the dirtiest business of all – a complex, encompassing hatred directed at the morality-deficient, regardless of color (which includes Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s callous head house slave).  As it turns out, Django Unchained is both the most moral film Tarantino has ever made and the most American movie of 2012, a two-fisted tour de force that revels in its destruction and creation of recklessly bold, blustery myths.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Impossible (2012)

The Impossible (2012)
Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona

4 out of 5

The overwhelming natural forces that separate a family are no match for the emotional forces that keep their hopes of reconciliation alive in The Impossible, a harrowing survival tale based on the true story of a beleaguered Spanish family during the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia.  Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) and wife Maria (Naomi Watts) decamp to a beachfront resort in Thailand with their three boys for a brief Christmas holiday, far away from the stress of Henry’s high-powered corporate job in Japan.  On December 26, a massive wave smashes into the coast and washes Maria and eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) miles inland.  Meanwhile, Henry helps the two younger children, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), survive the onslaught at the resort, then starts a frantic search for his missing loved ones.

While the basic structure of The Impossible is meant to keep audiences primed for its big tear-jerking moments, director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage) cleverly paces the film so that each emotional crescendo feels fully earned.  The entire first half is a visceral rollercoaster, employing impressive special effects to depict the uncanny terror of an ocean suddenly appearing where it should not be.  Maria emerges from the ordeal alive but grievously injured, and at first seems capable of consoling Lucas and leading him to safety.  But the dynamic shifts as her injuries worsen, and we see the transference of strength from mother to son. 

Holland is especially good at the heavy lifting once Watts’ character becomes bedridden and sporadically communicative, and is able to convey equal parts fear and fortitude when his post-disaster mission to help others find their missing family members inadvertently launches him into a new phase of survival mode.  Even when the focus shifts to Henry’s somewhat tedious search for the rest of his family, Bayona keeps tossing gentle curveballs to fight any complacency developing alongside expectations for a big, emotional reunion.  It also helps that Bayona and his crew shoot the film with a refreshing dynamism, turning what could be contrived moments of uplift and heartache into truly thrilling drama.  Still, Bayona can’t resist including some twinkly touches, such as when Geraldine Chaplin briefly drops in to gaze at the stars with the film’s two adorable moppets.

The Impossible is all about the nitty-gritty, though, especially in the medical sense (consider this a warning to the squeamish - compound fractures ain't pretty).  Montages are kept to a minimum and it’s well-acted throughout, with special attention paid to realistic interactions between strangers during the most trying of times.  While some people are empathetic – like the man who risks draining his cell phone battery when McGregor struggles to speak to his out-of-country relatives without breaking down – others are prickly or soberly honest about the limits of their assistance.  And while Bayona avoids sensational melodrama, he doesn’t shy away from the grim realities confronting the families that aren’t as lucky.  That makes the strength of the Bennetts’ familial bonds especially affecting in this poignant, patient film assuring us that, somewhere in the tempest, there’s still a sliver of sunlight.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Dir. Peter Jackson

3 out of 5

It was easy to forget that between the inter-species politics, breathtaking scenery, and pathological obsession with detail, the Lord of the Rings movies were remarkably down-the-middle action flicks.  Downplaying the exhaustive lineages and clannish concerns of fairy tale creatures, Peter Jackson built a cinematic juggernaut on the oldest of movie business principles: show, don't tell.  There was plenty of backstory there if you were interested, but Jackson perfectly captured a natural, novelistic flow onscreen that the stopping points between each film in the trilogy almost seemed arbitrary.  

That last sensation is again present in a new film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings predecessor The Hobbit, but not in an altogether positive way.  The first of these films, An Unexpected Journey, admirably sets the table for an epic dinner party that's several guests short.  The humble Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) lives a idyllic life among his fellow hobbits until the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) recruits him for an adventure.  A daring band of dwarves intends to reclaim their ancestral home from Smaug, the greedy, genocidal dragon who scattered their community across Middle-earth in a vast diaspora.  Bilbo is convinced to sign on as the expedition's "burglar" under the theory that hobbits, being exceedingly diminutive and unassuming creatures, are able to skirt danger better than anyone else.  Fighting his way past trolls, goblins, and orcs, Bilbo must also win the trust of the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), an exiled prince already worried about the prowess of the motley cohort he's cobbled together.

Whereas the fussy, fraidy-cat hobbits were often the subjects of the least-compelling portions of the Rings trilogy, Freeman's Bilbo is definitely the strongest element of The Hobbit.  He's wry, witty, resourceful, and almost completely unlike his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), who appears in a largely pointless cameo at the beginning of his uncle's story.  Jackson's ill-advised decision to stretch the standalone novel into another three-film behemoth means that several other familiar faces make awkward guest appearances in clipped, confusing scenes that are pitched exclusively at LOTR superfans.  At least there's plenty of meaty material with the ones who actually appear in the book, such as power-addled crack baby Gollum (Andy Serkis), who shares the movie's best scene with Bilbo as the two parry each other in a game of riddles.

The Hobbit mostly leaves the inescapable impression that we've seen this all before.  And indeed, we have:  Jackson recycles many images and set-ups from his previous journey to Middle-earth (the final shot is a dead-ringer for the one from Fellowship of the Ring).  He stubbornly maintains his focus on cacophonous action sequences and assumes that audiences won't warm up to these new characters unless they're presented as analogues to characters from the Rings trilogy - Armitage is practically a Viggo Mortensen surrogate in a role that's disproportionately emphasized as equal to Freeman's Bilbo.  

The sweeping dictatorial tendencies that were absolutely necessary to produce a multiplex-swallowing phenomenon like The Lord of the Rings do not translate as well to Tolkien's leaner, quirkier, character study.  Instead of changing his style to suit the material, Jackson does the opposite, symbolized in his insistence on shooting the film in a zippy 48 frames per second, double the industry standard.  The resulting images look dazzlingly clear but also frighteningly uncanny and artificial, especially when CGI is superimposed on the beautiful natural landscapes of Jackson's native New Zealand.  Much like its benevolently despotic auteur, An Unexpected Journey believes it knows what the audience wants better than the audience itself, but most of its successes are disappointingly perfunctory or coincidental.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This Is 40 (2012)

This Is 40 (2012)
Dir. Judd Apatow

2 out of 5

The axiom about absence making the heart grow fonder is put to the test in This Is 40, comedy impresario Judd Apatow’s “sort-of sequel” to his 2007 film Knocked Up, which introduced audiences to married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the counterweight to that film’s schlubbly protagonist lurching his way toward fatherhood.  These characters were refreshingly blunt about how sometimes the most difficult part of being a parent isn’t necessarily raising your child, but tolerating the person you chose to mate with.  They were funny, but in somewhat stereotypical ways that you didn’t mind in small doses – Debbie the joyless nag and Pete the lackadaisical galoot.  Who, then, wouldn’t want to see these two sarcastic, potty-mouthed meanies in their own adventure about discovering the sobering realities of middle age?

You have to admire Apatow’s bravery in refusing to sugarcoat the pain and insecurities that he alchemizes into raunchy, crowd-pleasing humor.  However, This Is 40 takes this mission too seriously, an extended sequestration with a rude, self-absorbed couple and their long-suffering children, Sadie and Charlotte (played by the director’s real-life daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow).  Pete and Debbie’s anxieties about hitting the big 4-0 are compounded by professional setbacks and familial drama.  Pete’s independent record label is struggling financially, but that doesn’t stop him from lending money to his lazy, emotionally manipulative father (a hilarious Albert Brooks).  Meanwhile, Debbie tries to reconnect with her estranged father (John Lithgow), while she suspects a young, flighty employee (Megan Fox) of stealing inventory from her clothing boutique.

That’s a lot of baggage to bring to a movie that’s already as crowded as an airport carousel.  Pete and Debbie are linked by their mutual dark streak; when they click, so does the movie, such as during a brief resort getaway that’s enhanced by a marijuana cookie (few actors play stoned for laughs as well as Rudd).   But their imperfections, meant to make them seem relatable and human, just become grating over two-plus hours of needless stalling on big decisions and necessary confrontations.  The pacing can be politely described as “convenient.”  Pete and Debbie’s birthdays are apparently only a week apart, but it seems like several months elapse while familiar faces from Apatow’s stable of writers and performers – Jason Segel, Annie Mumolo, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham – float in and out of the story, dispensing profane and playful one-liners.

The meandering vibe of the project suggests Apatow attempting to make another of his patented “hangout” movies, but the problem is that you probably wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with its protagonists.  This Is 40 gives you a front row seat to Pete and Debbie’s marital discord, an uncomfortable slog that completely overshadows most of the film’s bright spots.  In fact, the only subplot of note – featuring Melissa McCarthy as a righteously angry parent of one of Sadie’s classmates – points out the movie’s major flaw.  Calling the pair a “bank commercial couple,” she nails the incongruity of Paul and Debbie’s whiny, off-putting angst and their obvious attractiveness and affluence.  Rich, beautiful people can have problems too, but Apatow fails to realize that adding half-baked melodrama and a cloying indie rock soundtrack doesn’t make them more sympathetic.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)
Dir. Roger Michell

2.5 out of 5

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.  He wasn’t speaking specifically about Hyde Park on Hudson, but he’d probably come to the same conclusion about a film that traces the origins of a strategic alliance between Great Britain and the United States back to a wooly weekend of extramarital shenanigans and the most controversial hot dog of all time.  It’s 1939, and as Europe sits on the brink of war, King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) – Elizabeth II’s parents – are the first sitting British monarchs to visit the United States.  The culmination of their tour is an all-important trip to Hyde Park, New York, the hometown of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), where the royals attempt to curry diplomatic favor with the American head of state.  Watching all this unfold is Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of FDR summoned to Hyde Park to “lift his spirits” as he toils away on delicate matters of statecraft.  She is quickly taken by the president’s charms and they begin an affair, despite the presence of their highborn guests and Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams). 

Their sexual peccadilloes are just one of the many cultural and personal differences presented by director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) as potentially disastrous for the health of Anglo-American relations.  While the film aims to demystify its noble subjects, it mostly traffics in frivolity with comedy that’s staunchly middlebrow and disappointingly broad.  That’s especially true when it comes to Colman’s Elizabeth, a strident, shrewish caricature who’s constantly whining about the Roosevelts’ hidden agenda in forcing her husband to eat undignified logs of ground meat.  “It doesn’t mean anything!  It’s just a hot dog!” bellows the king, but you could have fooled me with the way the film fixates on the offending wieners.

Michell and writer Richard Nelson’s obviously overwhelming affection for FDR saves Hyde Park on Hudson from feeling completely formless.  But even that is a double-edged sword.  Margaret, the film’s narrator and ostensible protagonist, is hurt when she learns of the president’s many concurrent affairs, yet every betrayal somehow turns her into an even bigger apologist.  It’s not a good look for Linney, who does the best she can with her underwritten character.  Meanwhile, Murray’s generically genial spin on FDR is fine but slightly puzzling, like a grandfather enthusiastically dressing up for Halloween.  (In the gallery of Murray’s larks, this one belongs closer to Garfield than to Zombieland.)

Hyde Park on Hudson undoubtedly suffers most from poor timing.  Even though he gives arguably the film’s best performance, West is left holding the bag as the guy following Colin Firth’s inspirational Oscar-winning turn as George VI in The King’s Speech.  Also, the decision to tell the story from the perspective of Margaret, a minor character who remains tangential to the film’s main themes, echoes last year’s My Week with Marilyn.  Combining those two oh-so-tasteful reference points results only in a flat concoction that would much rather appear refined than be considered interesting.  In other words, it could have used more hot dogs.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Dir. David O. Russell

4.5 out of 5

Movies about mental illness tend to take liberties with their protagonists’ conditions in order to keep their likability intact.  Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), the hero of Silver Linings Playbook, may benefit a little from this treatment, but it’s clear early on that his journey will not be a mawkish one.  A former schoolteacher diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Pat’s just been released from the Baltimore mental hospital where he was sent after brutally beating a fellow teacher he caught in flagrante with his wife.  Believing he can manage his condition without drugs, he vows to lead a life of positivity and productivity – “Excelsior” is his new motto – that will reunite him with ex-wife Nikki (Brea Bee), who has filed a restraining order against Pat in the wake of his violent episode. 

He doesn’t get very far.  Within a couple days, he’s tossing a copy of Farewell to Arms out the window and waking up his parents to complain about the book’s downer ending.  In fact, Pat almost immediately rejects anything that offends his worldview, including the attractive young widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) he meets at a friend’s dinner party.  She’s battling her own depression in the wake her husband’s death, which has sent her into a spiral of despondent rudeness and sex addiction.  When Tiffany propositions Pat, he insists that he’s still married but takes her on a date anyway.  Of course, it ends in a barrage of mutual insults as Pat struggles to prevent his growing feelings for Tiffany from triggering the worst symptoms of his condition.

It is not your average romance, but Silver Linings Playbook is not your average romantic comedy.  While writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter), adapting from Michael Quick’s serio-comic novel, is only willing to go so dark in a movie with obvious Oscar aspirations, he finds a winning humor in the flammable chemistry of his leads.  Sassy and sharp, dirty and vulnerable, Lawrence gives as good as she gets from Cooper, who makes a statement against his typecasting as a smug alpha-male by thoroughly deconstructing it via his emotionally-arrested, lovesick mook.  Even as they bicker and bait each other, it’s undeniable that having someone that can relate to their mental condition is helping them both get well. 

The film shifts into a more conventional gear once Tiffany strikes a deal with Pat to pass messages to his estranged spouse in exchange for partnering with her in a dance competition.  Russell keeps the psychological conflict in the foreground via Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a superstitious Philadelphia Eagles fan who believes that his son has a major influence on his team’s all-important “juju.”  In one fell swoop, the film not only suggests that the Solitanos’ neuroses are generational, but also that other compulsions, despite beings socially acceptable, are no less destructive.  (The film’s cultural milieu – the self-loathing cauldron of Philadelphia sports fandom – makes it easy for Russell to drive this point home.) 

Silver Linings Playbook requires the viewer to forgive a lot of behavior that’s questionable at best, with the valleys of Pat’s condition positioned for maximum dramatic effect (though nobody’s going to mistake this movie for a documentary).  However, the film is democratic in distributing its characters’ hang-ups –Pat’s mom (Jacki Weaver) is a pro at sublimating her anxiety into homemade snacks – and puts them to good use in a satisfying climax that ties together all of the romantic and psychological stakes.  As difficult as it can be for the enigmatic coupling of Silver Linings Playbook to acknowledge and accept their vulnerabilities, theirs is not necessarily a story of redemption – it’s about finding some measure of satisfaction once you realize it’s impossible to stop being yourself.