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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

After a lazy holiday period, I have a whole lot of catching up to do. I am tempted just to do a quick roundup of mini reviews but it would be a great disservice to some of the great films that have come out over the last month. As such, I'm going to try and bash out as many reviews as I possibly can over the next couple of weeks, mixing both new releases and some relatively older films that are hopefully still on cinema. And if they're not, well, just consider these advance reviews of the inevitable DVD/ Blu-Ray release.

At this point, it's all but impossible to tackle Silver Linings Playbook without putting it in the context of the deluge of Academy Awards nominations it has received. It's up for best film, best adapted screenplay, best director, best editing and, as the first film to do so in many a year, in all four acting categories. And yet, at the outset, it's hard to imagine, let alone believe, that Silver Linings has received this kind of attention and these kinds of accolades.

To be clear, Silver Linings Playbook is a very, very good film - a great one even - but I would have thought that the sheer subtlety of what makes it such a great piece of work would have eluded the major award ceremonies. The Oscars, The BAFTAs, The Globes, The SAGs, the WAGs and the DAGs (I'm fairly sure one or two of those don't exist but considering just how many award ceremonies there are each year, you never can tell) do usually recognize quality cinema, to be fair, it's just that they usually pay attention to films that scream their "brilliance" from the rooftops, rather than whisper it from the aisles. 

It's true, the film does feature that most awards-friendly of subjects, a man grappling with mental illness as he tries to pick up the pieces of his broken life with the help of a similarly messed up young woman, but the way it plays itself out is as a quiet, unassuming mix of a character-driven drama, an inspiring-but-not-too-inspiring competition film and an unabashedly sentimental and fairly "mainstream" romantic comedy. It's so small and unassuming  in fact, that at first glance it doesn't look like anything special at all. 

What the voters at the Academy might actually have noticed then - and, considering their track record, I'm still getting over the shock that they might have actually done so - is that the triumph of Silver Linings Playbook is how effortlessly it takes three genres that are better known for vomiting out sickly sweet globs of goo than for spinning gold, and melding them into a whole that is cohesive, satisfying, charming, funny and genuinely moving. 

It's one thing to extract great drama from, say, America's most beloved president and his crusade against slavery or from a woman's desperate hunt for the world's most reviled terrorist, but from a "dramedy" film that mixes mental illness, dance competitions, gambling and an unlikely romance? Surely not. And yet, not only has David O Russel and his cast and crew done the impossible and done it really, really well; they have done so with such graceful ease that it's all too easy to forget just how much Silver Linings Playbook should not work.

I've never been the biggest David O. Russell fan in the past, not even of his most acclaimed film to date, The Fighter, but the way both his direction and his script (adapted from Matthew Quick's novel) deftly attains a tonal consistency throughout is as impressive as his ability to walk that very thin line between well-earned sentiment and exploitative "emotional pornography".

Still, however much credit must be given to Russell, the true heart of the film lies in its two central performances. Yes, Jackie Weaver and a finally-on-form-again Robert Deniro have certainly earned their supporting acting nominations, but this is Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's film all the way.

Cooper has been improving steadily over the years but he has never, ever been this good. His portrayal of a man suffering bi-polar disorder (though, to be fair, we mostly see him in manic mode in the film) is sympathetic, funny and humane when it could so easily have been a typically Hollywood-ized caricature of a mentally ill man.

Better yet though, is Jennifer Lawrence who continues to prove herself to be an inordinately talented young actress as a damaged young widow whose turn towards, shall we say, unencumbered promiscuity after the death of her husband makes her an oddly ideal foil for Cooper's character. She is a sparkly, funny screen presence who perfectly balances sheer likability with the poignancy of a painfully vulnerable young woman struggling to come to terms with a life shattered by tragedy. It's not just any young actress, after all, who can go head to head with Robert Deniro in one of the film's most perfectly played scenes and come out on top.

Admittedly, the film does suffer from a slightly rushed ending (the novel apparently devotes a further third of its running time to what the film addresses in its final ten minutes) but this slight flaw aside, Silver Linings Playbook was easily one of the best and most surprisingly accomplished films of 2012 and, though it's up against some stiff competition in the upcoming Academy Awards, it has more than earned its place in the running - even if it no doubt got some help from producer Harvey Weinstein along the way.

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