It’s never very easy to tell what direction director David O. Russell will go in. He went from the superbly intelligent Three Kings to the more bewildering and uneven I Heart Huckabees in 2004. He didn’t turn up again until 2010 with the Oscar nominated film The Fighter. It was supposed to signal a return to form for the director. With Silver Linings Playbook however, Russell makes another very uneven film.
It’s similar in terms of style to The Fighter in many ways, instead it’s set in a nicer part of town. And The Fighter had a story that felt human and genuine. Silver Linings Playbook however feels very contrived, and has just about as much corniness and misjudged sentiment as a cheap rom-com dumped onto television on a late afternoon. It’s surprising given the talent involved that it would end up this way, but David O. Russell can’t seem to find his way through the mushiness.
Former teacher Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) leaves a mental hospital after an eight month stint. He’s been struggling with bipolar disorder ever since the discovery of his wife’s affair destroyed his marriage. After leaving the mental hospital he moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). Pat then meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), with whom he agrees to partner in a dance competition, with the hope of catching his wife’s eye to win her back.
Bradley Cooper’s Pat is a difficult man to root for. The script never really paints him as a likable character, but Cooper does the best he can with what he’s given. This is probably the hardest Cooper has ever had to work on a film, through no fault of his own. We know he’s capable of playing so much more than a comedian or a total maniac. Limitless was great evidence of what he can do when the material is good enough. But here, Cooper is left to twist in the wind by his director, and make what he can out of the material.
The only real glimmer of excellence comes from Jennifer Lawrence, a young actress proving she could well be one of the future greats. She demonstrates an incredibly wide range, considering she’s playing a character that’s roughly Cooper’s age, when Lawrence is actually fifteen years younger. And she does have good chemistry with Bradley Cooper. Chris Tucker comes out of semi-retirement to make an appearance in a few scenes, and he brightens the screen every time he appears. If the material matches his strengths, then he could feasibly make a small comeback. Robert De Niro also makes an appearance as Pat’s OCD father, but his cute eccentricities soon become exhausting.
What’s really surprising is that David O. Russell seems to have lost a little of his edge. He’s usually known for having good instincts, encouraging improvisation and acting a little on impulse. On The Fighter it worked brilliantly. On Three Kings it also sparkled, even though the gentlemanly George Clooney was driven to punch him in the face at one point. But on this occasion, Russell’s impulses don’t really work. In fact, they’re rather boring.
Take for example the film’s comedy. First of all, making any jokes about a bipolar character is going to be rather difficult, but in this case the jokes just feel very awkward. It never seems to match the tone of the story, and every time a joke comes a long it makes you squirm a little in your seat. Silver Linings Playbook certainly should be applauded for not shying away from it’s eccentricity, but it’s all way too uneven to really satisfy.
The film was released on the back of very positive reviews in the American press. This was followed by whispers that it could be a potential Oscar winner. It was also produced by Bod and Harvey Weinstein, two brothers who are notorious for their Oscar campaigns. They know how to win, just ask Colin Firth. Taking all of this into account, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is just Oscar fodder. It has all the necessary ingredients to be a winner, but given how poor it is compared to the competition, you really hope this doesn’t succeed.
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