Piers Marchant on Silver Lining Playbook: Sell crazy someplace else

December 27, 2012

This — and the huge Top 10 piece — got bumped from this Friday’s MovieStyle because of space. So we’re running it here. For the record, I didn’t like the movie much either.

Silver Linings Playbook
Grade: 81
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Brea Bee, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker
Director: David O. Russell
Rating: R, for language and some sexual content/nudity
Running time: 122 minutes

By Piers Marchant for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

Crazy, for lack of a better term, can be a lot of things. Alarming, for sure, as well as terrifying, mortifying, funny, brave, potentially enthralling.

I guess it could certainly also be seen as sort of endearing under the right circumstances. But one thing it is decidedly not is convenient. It doesn’t come and go to suit the needs of anyone, unless, of course, it is at the hands of a Hollywood director, and being utilized as little more than a plot device.

If ever there were a mainstream director who you’d think would have a handle on crazy, it would be David O. Russell, the man whose infamous brutal dressing down of Lily Tomlin on the set of one of his films became an Internet showcase for verbal abuse, the man who has had productions shut down in his face, who had problems finding work after his brilliant but peculiar I Heart Huckabees left audiences bewildered … the man who actually got into a fist fight with one of the biggest leading men in Hollywood.

But here, adapting the novel by Matthew Quick, Russell falls prey to the kind of obvious emotional construction endemic to a Hollywood that would much rather have autism represented by cute little Dustin Hoffman playing blackjack and a serious mental disorder by a brilliantly heroic Russell Crowe.

The film centers on Patrick (Bradley Cooper), a former high school teacher cuckolded by his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), whose resultant beat down of her lover leaves him committed to an asylum for months and further clamped down by a restraining order when he finally comes home. Undeterred, with a headful of optimistic twaddle he picked up in therapy, Patrick keeps obsessively pursuing his wife, in part by trying to improve himself in order to impress her. He loses weight, gets in shape, tries to keep the demons and dark urges at bay but at least in the beginning of the film, he too quickly loses control, flaring up in a second’s notice against a Hemingway novel he doesn’t like, freaking out in his shrink’s waiting room because of the song playing over the radio and flailing at his long-suffering parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in violent spurts of fury.

But all this changes when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the kid sister of his best friend’s wife. Tiffany has her own issues, of course. She’s a cop’s widow with a history of sleeping around, demolishing everything good in her life in order to savor the wreckage. When they meet, they first bond over the various pharmaceuticals they’ve been prescribed over the years. They are damaged and miserable and, not surprisingly, find solace in each other’s company.

Only Patrick can’t let go of his wife (he has a habit of pointing to his wedding ring as a way of justifying nearly everything he attempts to do) and is still trying anything in his power to win her back. He even goes so far as to make a bargain with Tiffany to join her as a dance partner for a local competition in exchange for her passing along a note to his wife, with whom he cannot legally be in contact.

You read that right: a dance competition. On top of that, for reasons too negligible to go into here, his father, an obsessive-compulsive football fan and working bookie, who follows his precious Eagles on TV because he’s not allowed to enter their stadium, makes a winner-take-all parlay bet with his obnoxious Cowboys-loving neighbor (Paul Herman), that the Birds will not only beat favored Dallas, but Patrick and Tiffany will average a more-than-respectable score in their dance contest.

The stage is set, then, for a crowd pleasin’ showdown and the film does not fall short of its obvious destiny. But in the process of becoming a rags-to-riches story, it does so only by hugely stacking the deck in favor of its protagonist. Gone are the incalculable rages, the fits and starts of conversation, the blunt-force method of communication with which Patrick establishes his character. Instead, we have Cooper, suave movie star, who bleeds more and more into Patrick’s established emotional anarchy and leaves him just another starched shirt on the romantic leading man assembly line.

One could make the argument, of course, that it is precisely Patrick’s meeting Tiffany that sets him on this vastly improved course of action. That, and the medications he finally acquiesces to take but also eerily removed is any kind of darkness in Tiffany, a self-proclaimed “slut” who claims to have thoroughly enjoyed her unsuppressed sexual proclivities before becoming chaste and gold-hearted when attending to Patrick. It would certainly be a more beautiful world if two utterly damaged people could truly heal each other and allow them to re-enter ordinary society as heroes, but it smacks too much of a neat and tidy Hollywood convention.

And Patrick’s wife — whom we assume has either moved away or died, fairly eliminating his raison d’etre — does indeed make an appearance at the end of the film, but only to reassure us that our boy is on the good and righteous path of normalcy and doesn’t need her anymore.
The truth is, life is a good deal messier than that and no matter how many dancing competitions one might enter, mental health isn’t something that just arrives at your door when you need to get serious. Crazy might indeed be thrilling, but those thrills don’t come cheap.

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