Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – Review

Review: Silver Linings Playbook is a great character piece that feels more like a documentary than a fiction feature. The film is about Pat, a man struggling with being bipolar, who is released back into the custody of his parents (following a stay in a mental facility for a violent episode). Pat is trying to find his center so that he can resume his relationship with his estranged wife Nikki (who has a restraining order against him). To get in contact with Nikki, he enlists the help of Tiffany, the sister of a friend of Nikki’s, who is also struggling with mental disease. For her help, Pat agrees to help her with a dance competition. Their bond becomes a meaningful part in Pat rehabilitation.

Writer-director David O. Russell directs the film to have a very realistic feel (much like his last The Fighter). To accomplish this, he uses a hand-held camera and improvised dialog, giving the conversations a more natural progression (so they do not feel stylized for film). The performances are also very naturalistic, with each emotion feeling organic and authentic. This in turn pulls the audience in, as they can relate to the characters because they just feel like normal people. And really, this is the success of the film – its characters and the extent that they resonate with the audience.

The hand-held camera work is very aggressive. The camera often goes out of its way to emphasize details in a given scene. The camera also seems to invade the personal space of the actors at times, giving the film a very intimate but also an intimidating feel (depending on what the scene calls for). Russell does not what his characters and particularly the audience to escape any confrontation. His camera is right there in the thick of things, which gives many of the scenes an uncomfortable energy (which is fantastic).

The audience should feel a little uncomfortable watching the drama unfold, as Russell’s narrative digs into a very personal topic for him – mental disease (specifically bipolar disorder). He is not interested in playing it safe with his narrative, he wants to give a realistic account of people struggling with this disorder and also to show that they are no different than the rest of us – they have goals and dreams, good days and bad days.

To further draw the audience in, the narrative is also set up like a romantic comedy, which informs the expectations of the audience. They root for Pat and Tiffany as a couple. The undertones are there telling them that they should like these characters and want them to be together in the end. Russell also recognizes that the drama of the film is fairly intense and uncomfortable, thus there needs to be both a romantic plot and comedy (this is surprisingly funny at times) to give the audience lighter moments allowing them to breath (otherwise it might be too much). It is an interesting twist on the romantic comedy formula, blending it with a character drama (one that seems primed to pay dividends for its actors come awards season – a feel good romance that also works as a biting character drama).

However, as good a character piece as Silver Linings Playbook is, the narrative is not quite tight enough, leaving it feeling a bit slow at times. It is both a romance and a drama (separately and together). Each story needs time to develop, which puts the other on the back-burner (so to speak). Thus, the audience is being torn between the budding romance between Tiffany and Pat (which is really the secondary story) and Pat finding a way to cope and be okay in the world (which mostly seems to focus on Pat’s relationship with his father, who gets under his skin). Eventually, these two stories align and the film’s pacing seems to work a lot better. Plus, the conclusion is fantastic.

Silver Linings Playbook is a wonderful film that has some of 2012’s best and most developed characters (and performances). Its realism draws its viewer in, and its unflinching look at mental disease without being clinical or derogatory is refreshing.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David O. Russell has now made six feature films. With The Fighter and now Silver Linings Playbook, he has very much established himself as an actor’s director, as he is garnering brilliant work from his casts. His aesthetic style has also evolved to be this hyper-realism that give his work an authentic quality (that is mostly lacking in Hollywood features), which again attracts great actors. Great actors want to work with great directors, and right now Russell is one of the best.

Danny Elfman’s score for the film is almost unnoticeable, as much of it plays without music or with a found soundtrack. However, when Efman’s work is needed, he delivers a fun bit of music (that plays seemingly lighter than the tone of the film, but still works) and also some dramatic tones (to accentuate moments). Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography fits with Russell’s desire to have the film feel realistic. The lighting seem mostly natural and un-stylized, though the camera work (as touched on above) definitely contributes more actively to the overall feel of the film (being intimate yet aggressive). Production designer Judy Becker’s job basically is to give the actors an organic space in which to work, and she succeeds wonderfully. The characters and their homes (which most of the film takes place in) feel real, again feeding into the documentary shooting style.

The cast is universally excellent in Silver Linings Playbook. John Ortiz and Jacki Weaver stand out in smaller supporting roles. Chris Tucker is great in his comeback performance. He is funny, and yet feels completely believable (not like he is merely putting on a show for the camera). Robert De Niro is an icon, but that said he has not really delivered great work or great films lately (probably not since the 1990s). Playing Pat Senior, De Niro is wonderful. He has such humanity to him, that his performance evokes pity and yet he still has an undeniable power enabling him to just command a scene. It is among his best work. Jennifer Lawrence, playing opposite two other phenomenal performances, almost steals the whole film (and for many viewers, she probably does). Her Tiffany is completely unafraid and strong, yet Lawrence also has such a vulnerability to her performances. She gives off so much emotion just with her face and eyes. It is probably the best female performance to date this year. Bradley Cooper announces himself as a fine actor with his performance as Pat. It is easily the best work of his career. Cooper brings such a destructive energy to Pat that the audience feels like he might explode at any moment. However, he also brings a lot of compassion to the role, making him likable when he probably should not be.

Summary & score: Silver Linings Playbook is a flourishing character drama that resonates with, enlightens and entertains its audience. 8/10

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