Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Let's go crazy

Does love actually make you crazy, or is it really the other way around? Mental illness has been the psychic engine of some more convincing modern romantic comedies—see Punch-Drunk Love (2002)—perhaps because it places an obstacle between lovers and coital consummation where, in a post-sexual revolution universe, there might otherwise not be. That’s certainly the case with the tweaking twosome in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, in which a manic schoolteacher (Bradley Cooper) newly released from a state hospital—where he was placed after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death— meets a young cop’s widow (Jennifer Lawrence) with impulse control issues who’s been flirting with nymphomania. He’s adopted a program of blind optimism and is obsessed with reuniting with his estranged spouse; she’s focusing her ferocious energies on preparing for a dance contest. Given that’s he the subject of a restraining order, he needs a secret marriage-mending go-between; given that the sort of dance she has in mind generally works better with two people, she needs a partner. So they make a deal, go out on Halloween Raisin Bran-and-tea dates, crazy shit happens, more crazy people enter the picture, bumpity-bum-bum, da-ta-da-ta-da. 

But when I say “crazy,” I don’t mean crazy-crazy, like real-life crazy, but rather that special we’re-in-a-crazy-movie kind of crazy that allows for ids to run rabid in the name of controlled comic chaos; not the sort of crazy that leads to tragedy, despair or, in the case of John Cassavetes’ movies, that most fragile, unnerving, eerily exhilarating sort of equilibrium. The characters in Silver Linings Playbook, based on Matthew Quick’s eponymous novel, are only as crazy as they need to be to keep the story’s central conceits afloat for the film’s duration; as we near resolution, the craziness is fully contained. Near the top of the film our protagonist chucks a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls through a window—not out, but through it—from frenzied disgust for its scandalizing, downbeat finale. He demands happy endings from his stories, and we know that come hell or high water—or in this case, flagrant, flailing dance floor amateurism and football triumph—he’s going to get one. So yes, under its batshit guise of high neurosis, this is deceptively close to being a perfectly conventional rom-com. 

And so what? The big picture feels a bit pedestrian, but scene-by-scene Silver Linings Playbook is giddily inspired. Cooper’s nothing if not committed, a little scary, a lot talky, running around his parents neighbourhood with a trash bag over his torso so he can sweat better. Lawrence brings nothing but wild conviction and drive to her secondary role. She’s got feral Medusa stares, is seductive in a way that makes you want to remove sharp objects from the house when she comes over for dinner. And the supporting cast populates Russell’s suburban Philadelphia milieu with memorable, distinctive neuroses of their own, most especially Robert De Niro, terrific as Cooper’s OCD bookie dad, who’s insanely superstitious about sports. Russell’s movies run on anxiety, urgency and carefully tuned babble, and everyone gets some great dialogue. The final scenes kind of blow it, the dance-off most of all, since it keeps cutting away to reaction shots to remind us how we’re supposed to feel. But whatever, if you don’t have a good time with Silver Linings Playbook, you’re nuts. 

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