Thursday, June 27, 2013

LCC Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook was a film that when I first heard about I wasn't too sure I wanted to see. The name didn't really catch me, and I was feeling quite "down and out", not to mention cynical when I came upon the title. In a whim I chose to sit down and watch it based on the fact that Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for her performance and I just wanted to see what the heck all the fuss was about over the film. By the end of the film I was glad I did.

The film is about a man who suffers from bi-polar syndrome who is being released from a rehabilitation center after having an episode from coming home and seeing his ex-wife in the shower with another man. He's released on probation and goes about with the goal of trying to turn his life around to try and win back his ex-wife. He meets through friends Jennifer Lawrence's character who is a slightly depressed widow, and eventually after several seemingly "chance" meetings he decides to help her participate in a dance competition if she'll help him win back his ex-wife. I think you can tell the rest of the plot from there.

Philly, as in life, is a character all its own in the film.
Both Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper give stellar performances and deserve any and all accolades thrown their direction. The fact the film tries to tackle having a main character have a disease such as bi-polar syndrome is both a breath of fresh air and gives Cooper a chance to really flex his acting muscles. Robert DeNiro as Cooper's father is also amazing to see outside of his more recent typical roles as a more working class man. The personality of "Philly" is wonderfully captured in the film and overall it is just well made, and not to mention completely hilarious. On top of that the film is positively un-ironic in its message of pursuing "positivity" and "silver linings", which is quite an odd message considering our extremely cynical and snarky society at the moment. It's like Pollyanna woke up from a long nap and decided to turn our frowns upside down. Now that's not to say there aren't clouds to our silver linings, and our protagonists don't completely get a triumphant happy ending of being number one in the dance competition, they simply earn the score that'll win DeNiro the bet and win each other's hearts. It's a cautious optimism and one which is willing to settle for "not being the best" but simply "doing the best it can". Which I think speaks to how our society's mindset is evolving as we turn away from desiring being the sole super power into a nation more willing to accept being a great power amongst many other greats, as reflected in a microcosm here.

I'm crazy and you're crazy, but somehow we're less crazy together....
There are a few problems the film has--most of which center in its depiction of bi-polar syndrome. It's treated like it's a "minor hurdle" that is easily "cured" with the "power of love". There is only one example within the film of Cooper having an "episode" which occurs about half-way through the film, and then the second half drops any and all consequences living with such a syndrome might have. The reason why that complaint both holds water and doesn't at the same time is because the film is following a formula. Those familiar with my post on romantic comedies know that the formula for such a type of film is that "two sick people heal each other through love", and this film is absolutely no exception. So while I can definitely agree with the critique, I have to say that given the type of film that it is (a mix between a romantic comedy and a screwball comedy), that one should have expected such a "wiping the dust under the rug" treatment to occur at some point during the film, if only due to the nature of film expectations from audiences. It goes back to our love of "conventions" as mentioned in the satire post, that we're more willing to forgive something for lacking "realism" if it conforms to a convention than we are someone for breaking a convention in order to portray something more realistically.

You love her, right? If not you can say hello to my claws.
Silver Linings Playbook is at its heart a mixture between a screwball comedy and a romantic comedy. What are the differences between the two? While screwball comedy will get its own theory post later on, I'll say at this point not too much. In a romantic comedy typically the rest of the world is healthy (overall) except these two individuals--but in a screwball comedy the rest of the world is a little sick (not too much) as well as our two individuals and our individuals against all odds not only manage to heal themselves but their society in a small way as well. In a screwball comedy you're more likely to have a whole cast of eccentric and intriguing side-characters than you do in a romantic comedy proper where at most you'll have one or two eccentrics. The antics of the eccentrics are also likely to be much more zany, ridiculous, and over the top in a screwball comedy than they are in a romantic comedy. I'm reminded of the collapsing dinosaur skeleton or needing to sing "I can't give you anything but love" to a leopard in Bringing Up Baby which is the quintessential screwball comedy. In What's Up Doc? the curse of bad luck that follows our female protagonist wherever she goes is another example of the complete ridiculousness of the genre. In a screwball comedy the world is completely ridiculous--but that's okay because some of that ridiculousness is seen as a little "healthy" to balance out an otherwise dry and boring life. Silver Linings Playbook doesn't go to the extremes of ridiculousness of other screwball comedies--and even tempers it, but you feel it wouldn't be completely out of character if it did. Only part of the society our characters lives in is full of wild eccentrics--their immediate neighborhood--everyone outside of the immediate neighborhood (as depicted at the dance competition or at the school Cooper used to work) is depicted as "normal and well-adjusted" and having to deal with the zaniness of our characters, and so that's why I say it's a mixture between a romantic comedy and screwball comedy: only a small part of society is crazy and needs healing--not the whole of it. Our protagonists compared to the zaniness of the small sick society they come from, become more well-adjusted, but they remain crazier than the rest of our normal society, finding a way to balance and live in between the two. This seems to be the new norm for our modern take on this romantic comedy/screwball comedy mixture if the films Post Grad, 500 Days of Summer, and The Holiday are anything to judge by.

With one shot, New Hollywood was born.
Sliver Linings Playbook isn't like most films Hollywood releases--scratch that--it isn't like most films it's released since 1967 when "New Hollywood" took over with its attention to violence, sex, special effects, and explosions--and began dominating the silver screen with the shockingly bloody ending to the film Bonnie and Clyde. Silver Linings Playbook as a film could've easily been made any time prior to 1967--but probably in the 1930s during the golden age of screwball comedies--as that is essentially what the film is. You could easily put Ginger Rodgers in for Jennifer Lawrence, and a Dick Powell or some other slightly gruff guy for Bradley Cooper. The only difference between the 1930s and now is that in the 1930s they would've ended up becoming superstar dancers and winning the dance competition in the end. Beyond that everything else is transferable and has its equivalence. Jennifer Lawrence can still be a young depressed widow who's had a few too many indiscretions which has caused her to lose her job and turn to dancing while living with her parents. Bradley Cooper's parents in this iteration would become owners of a boarding house that he's now living in. You can still keep the betting subplot that his father has--but change the sport to baseball and the bet is between him and the only boarder who pays his rent on time while everyone else is behind, with the bank on the parent's about possibly repossessing the house turned boarding house. Instead of running into each other while running, the change there would be that Bradley Cooper's 1930s character likes to walk the streets visiting places where his ex-wife and he used to be. Bradley Cooper's character would change from outright having bi-polar disorder to simply being a little depressed but now on the mends and trying to win back his ex-wife. They can still have their "meet cute" of he needs a wife and she needs a husband, she can still be quite sassy and street smart, he can still be naively optimistic and a bit of a dreamer. The final scene where Lawrence character is crying and Cooper's character rushes after her to tell her that he really loves her and he has for a while is only missing the swelling violins and taffeta to have been between Becall and Bogart or Garbo and Taylor. I could go on and on, but I'll stop there. This is not to say that Old Hollywood will return as it was--this new wave that's still working its identity out is a bit more gritty, ironic, and quirky and much less glamorous than Old Hollywood ever was, even with all the similarities I see. It's a modern take on Old Hollywood, bringing some things back from the grave, while updating other things that don't transfer so well to all the changes that have happened in the past forty plus years.

So why did I just spend a nice lengthy paragraph detailing how this film would've been made in the 1930s? Well, that's because not only could it have, I think it marks the beginning of the end of "New Hollywood". I know with all those superhero films coming out, it looks like New Hollywood is digging in, but at the same time there is a slow--but growing movement in younger film makers I've been noticing to tell simpler stories that are low budget (hence little to no special effects or explosions) and are now referencing sex and violence but we hardly see any of either on screen. Silver Linings Playbook is just near the forefront of this trend in film making. Arguably New Hollywood didn't take over in one year either. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Hello Dolly!, and What's Up Doc? which were all released after Bonnie and Clyde are very much of the Old Hollywood formula. Consider ourselves in the transition period. So this doesn't mean that expensive blockbusters with their pricey special effects are through--but it's getting towards the end.