Silver Linings Playbook *** (out of five)
David O. Russell is a lucky man. The filmmaker routinely finds himself mentioned in the same conversations involving other young directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and Wes Anderson: young(er) American men forming their own mini-new wave, carrying distinctive voices and being undoubtedly part of Hollywood without being tied to the studio system. Each of these artists inevitably find funding for their projects (often in the $US7m-$US10m range, although Aronofsky and Russell have also played with much higher when working with a studio), put out a film about every eighteen months to two years, and inevitably find themselves critically praised. Russell is lucky to be in this group on two levels: for my money, his is the least distinctive voice of the four, and he has been caught out being an absolute pig.
Russell’s films began with the quirky calling card indie Spanking the Monkey and have progressed through enjoyable farce (Flirting with Disaster); the big-budget, semi-studio and (for my money) overpraised war satire Three Kings; the almost unwatchable I Heart Huckabees; and his best film, The Fighter, a legitimately great work. This does not add up the consistent quality of (especially) the two Andersons. It’s a strong filmography, but hardly mind-blowing.
As for being a pig, this has been documented by Sharon Waxman in Rebels on the Backlot, with her chapter about Russell’s behavior on Three Kings (supposedly causing a physical altercation with George Clooney) and most spectacularly his elongated, unbelievably outrageous explosion at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees, which can be seen in all its despicable glory right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMVILMo1Cq0
Russell’s eight-time nominated new film Silver Linings Playbook is a rom-com, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it falls into such formulaic conventions – and clichés – of the genre that it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. The first act is definitely intriguing: a well-acted set-up sees Pat (Bradley Cooper) being let out of a mental hospital in the care of his mother (Jacki Weaver); he’s off to go live with her and his dad Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro); his duty is to stay on his meds and go to therapy; his goal is to read all the books he never got through in high-school – assumedly due to his quite extreme bi-polar disorder (of which Cooper plays the manic highs particularly well). So far, so good: a family dramedy with the modern twist of the modern mental illness.
Things stay on track when he meets Tiffany (the movie’s highlight, Jennifer Lawrence), another troubled soul in town. Her problem (I think) is more of a straight-out obsessive disorder; whatever it is, they’re obviously two peas in a pod, and it’s obvious where the film is going to go.
The problem is how it gets there. About halfway through, Tiffany reveals to Pat a goal of hers that she wants him to help with: to dance in an upcoming local competition. At this point the movie swerves off whatever clever, quirky, indie-minded road it was on and directly onto the Hollywood Rom-Com Superhighway, its destiny not only as mapped out as if spoken by your in0dash navigator, but even relishing in contrivance, co-incidence and extreme lack of plausibility. The final minutes are as awash in cliché as have ever been seen; Hugh Grant’s done this a thousand times, and yes, it is old.
All the performers are good and, as a Rom-Com, the mental illness element gives it an edge that lifts it into a slightly original sphere. But only for awhile. Once it loses the courage of its convictions, it becomes irritatingly predictable and stale.