Thursday 9 November 2017

From the archive: "Silver Linings Playbook"

The writer-director David O. Russell has a fondness for turning generic material upside down by the ankles, and shaking it to see what comes out. The idiosyncratic approach found its biggest audience in his Clooney-starring Gulf War comedy Three Kings, but it was already there in his 1996 screwball Flirting with Disaster, and its success was confirmed by 2010’s The Fighter, a boxing melodrama more memorable for its lively kitchen set-tos than its rock ‘em-sock ‘em ring encounters.

Silver Linings Playbook, adapted by Russell from a Matthew Quick novel, plots a recovery arc familiar from innumerable romantic comedies: that of Bradley Cooper’s crushed teacher Pat, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and forced to move back in with his parents following the dissolution of his marriage. Yet Russell’s interest lies chiefly in providing context for his protagonist’s mental distraction: for once, a romcom’s feelgood elements go hand-in-hand with some substance.

The Fighter taught Russell that movies are often more fun the more folks you get in the shot. It isn’t just Pat who’s feeling the strain here, which gives the film the advantage of a certain controlled madness: scenes don’t unfold in quite the way you expect. The instability Russell fosters redoubles when Pat is invited to a realtor friend’s house for dinner, over which he comes to bond with his hostess’s widowed sister Tammy (Jennifer Lawrence) on the subject of antidepressants. We know these two are fated to be together, yet the road taken to get them from A to B is rocky indeed: heaven help anyone in any sequence to feature the sickly sounds of Stevie Wonder’s “Ma Cherie Amour”.

From the way he leaves the cameras rolling on the couple’s first date – held on Halloween, in a diner where Pat orders Raisin Bran cereal – it’s clear Russell’s priority is to mine every scene, each character, for hidden, surprising depths. The technique works wonders in scuffing up The Hangover’s bestubbled permasmirk Cooper and revealing the actor’s likable, vulnerable qualities. It also enables Lawrence’s most pressing claim to movie stardom yet, replacing the glassy, doll-like presence showcased in The Hunger Games with someone more present, more real: a girl with a past, and dirt under her black-painted fingernails.

Robert de Niro is back on something close to form as Pat’s father, a prime representative of that species of blue-collar male who uses sports talk as a substitute for emotion. And the superior supporting cast also witnesses that rarest of things: a bearable, rather sweet turn from erstwhile Rush Hour motormouth Chris Tucker as a fellow patient, whose intermittent appearance in proceedings slyly underlines the film’s idea of life’s arbitrariness, and how lucky we are to survive it.

There’s so much healing going on that Russell can’t subvert it all, though the restorative dance-off Pat and Tammy eventually enter into is far from the Step Up series: the stakes are different, the music choices more inspired, the result to cherish. As with the film, which – for all its cultivated chaos – proves very skilfully assembled (note how Russell integrates the vagaries of the gridiron season in such a way that the P-word can’t entirely be ditched from the title) and supremely entertaining: the kind of smart, zippy gem that rewards its audience’s adventurousness while never once insulting their intelligence. Who let this into the multiplexes?

(MovieMail, November 2012)

Silver Linings Playbook screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.05am.

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