Sunday, March 10, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

There is a scene midway through Silver Linings Playbook where Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has been invited to the house of married couple Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles, at least providing somewhat of an answer to the question, "I wonder where Julia Stiles has been, I used to like her a lot?"), ostensibly for a dinner party, but mostly so they can see for themselves what Solitano's mental state is, having recently been released from a mental health facility for beating his wife's lover half to death.  Veronica's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who suffers from mental illness herself, is also invited to the dinner party (for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to me) and Pat and Tiffany have a long conversation about the various medications they have been prescribed, and the side effects of those medications.

That conversation is a window into a broad class of disorders that can seem mysterious to those who aren't affected by them.  The medications that Pat and Tiffany have been prescribed presumably help with their mental health, but leave them in various states of dysfunctionality otherwise, whether it's jittery or zombified or anything in between.  Pat is engaged in a quixotic effort to woo his wife back, despite being on the business end of a restraining order, and Tiffany, who fell into sex addiction after losing her policeman husband, uses Pat's overwhelming desire to get his wife back to convince him to become her partner in a major local dance competition.  Tiffany uses the dance lessons as a device to focus her attention, and attempt to break her bad habits; she sees in Pat a fellow soul, and can see how destructive his fixation on his wife actually is, despite dangling the fact that she sometimes sees his ex-wife (through Veronica) and can get a letter from Pat to her in exchange for his agreeing to the dance lessons.

Pat's father, Patrizio (Robert DeNiro) has what is clearly a case of undiagnosed OCD; his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) appears to have adapted to Patrizio's own mental illness without ever asking him to get it treated.  Patrizio and Dolores are of a generation where such things weren't discussed, and it never occurs to them that their relationship with Pat, loving though it is, is also toxic to his well-being.  It is implied that Dolores worked legal back-channels in order to get Pat released from the institution at the beginning, and neither parent considers the possibility that perhaps Pat's best bet to get healthy isn't in their house.  But he moves in, and he eventually goes back on his medications (after a very ugly incident when Pat accidentally strikes his mother), and begins to put the pieces of his life back together, with a whole lot of Tiffany's encouragement.

The acting in Silver Linings Playbook is as good as advertised - Jennifer Lawrence's prickly energy fits the character of Tiffany perfectly, and it's hard to imagine any other actress playing the role.  It's always nice to see Robert DeNiro fully engaged in a performance, which kind of feels like it hasn't happened since the first Meet The Parents movie, way back in 2000.  Bradley Cooper has to essentially carry the movie, and he does a nice job of subsuming his usual smirky persona for Pat's damaged, difficult existence.  I can't really call Chris Tucker's very minor role as Pat's friend Danny from the institution a "revelation", because it's such a slight part, but boy Tucker is funny and charming in the film.

It's hard for me to really judge how well this film portrays mental illness.  It falls into one of the classic cinematic traps of showing us a character's warped mental state by having them yell a lot, which starts to feel a little cheap after a while.  On the other hand, it does a good job of avoiding knee-jerk judgments about the mistakes that both Pat and Tiffany have made along the way, and tries hard to portray them as two people whose actions are part and parcel with real, honest-to-God disorders.  Ultimately, I think the film's balance is off just slightly, in that it spends too much time with Patrizio's obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles (which is how his mental illness is filtered to the audience, but straddles too close to the line of normal sports fan weirdness) and not enough time, quite frankly, on the dancing.  The scenes when Cooper and Lawrence dance are delightful, particularly during the training sequences (who doesn't love a good training scene?) and even during the competition, when director David O. Russell chooses to film in somewhat off-putting close-ups (either as a stylistic choice, or because Cooper and Lawrence couldn't quite credibly pull the dancing off), the two stars give off a palpable chemistry that gives life to the film.  Silver Linings Playbook is a good movie about mental illness that also involves some dancing; I think it could have been a great movie about dancing that was about people with mental illness.  B+