By Niall McArdle
It is always a curious thing to see a film for the first time long after any hoopla surrounding it. David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook was a critical and audience favourite this time last year, winning a number of awards (including a Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence), and securing Russell’s place as one of the top directors around, but for some reason I’d been avoiding it. His American Hustle is currently at the top of most lists of best films of 2013, so now seems a good time for me to give in and see Silver Linings Playbook. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of the better American films of the last few years, a hard-edged romantic comedy.
Bradley Cooper (surprisingly very good) is a former history teacher struggling to put his life back together after losing his wife and havign a mental breakdown. After several months in a state psychiatric institution, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he returns to his family in Philadelphia, resolving to always look for a silver lining. His dad (Robert de Niro) is a bookmaker obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s also a little OCD and superstitious about how he watches football games.
Cooper is obsessed with losing weight, getting in shape and winning back his wife. This involves reading the high-school English syllabus she teaches, which puts a dent in his silver lining idea as he discovers most of the books tends to have unhappy endings. He has manic episodes, usually late at night, waking up his parents, giving de Niro the chance to go all “whaddaya doin’? Your’e driving us nuts!” and slapping Cooper around (I was less impressed with de Niro’s performance here than most people).
Because this is a romance, of course, Cooper’s not going to find redemption in books and exercise: he needs a girl, and luckily for him, Jennifer Lawrence lives just down the road. She’s an attractive young widow, depressed, and, like Cooper, a grown-up stuck living with her parents. She is the silver lining in the film, and Holmes is wonderful here: vulnerable, tough, hard-bitten. Their first meeting is textbook romantic comedy boy meets girl – they dislike each other intensely – but they do find common ground discussing their various psychiatric medications. They fall in love rehearsing for a ballroom dancing contest.
Silver Linings Playbook is a curious creature. It has a big-name cast and probably a decent-sized budget, but it feels at times like a Sundance darling. Russell has a loose, unfussy directing style. Several scenes seem improvised (or at least the result of a loose improvisational style). But it’s still rather contrived in how it resolves its final crisis: I wasn’t fond of the “big scene” where everybody gathers at the house and they hash out their problems.
Because this is fundamentally a comedy, everything works out well in the end. The film preaches the idea that a loving family and friends can help you through anything (which might be true, but medication – in small doses – can also help). But for the most part it’s so well-written, acted and directed that you can overlook its annoyances. It has a great supporting cast (including Julia Styles, cruelly cast as the disapproving older sister: wasn’t she the Jennifer Lawrence of the early 2000s?) It even manages to make Chris Tucker look like he has the makings of a decent actor.
Verdict: Three and a half awkward dance routines out of five.
For all its talk of medication and therapy, the film still avoids, however, the problem of living in an over-medicated society, a problem that Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects deals with up front. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have made a treatise on an epidemic disguised as a neat, twisty thriller.
Rooney Mara (excellent) is a severely depressed and suicidal young woman. Her husband, Channing Tatum, has just been released from prison for insider trading, and the marriage – and Mara – have suffered. Tatum is mercifully not in the film very long, though I will concede he is perfect casting for a frat-boy turned Wall Street scumbag. After ramming her car into a brick wall, Mara is referred to psychiatrist Jude Law (three-piece suits, charm, intelligence, nice office). He prescribes her medication, but it only seems to make it worse for her (she has sleepwalking episodes). So Law prescribes a new drug (mainly because he is being paid by the pharmaceutical company, a practice endemic in the medical profession ). It makes things … even worse.
This is reputedly Steven Soderbergh’s last film, and we should be grateful that the director whose career has been marked by making “one for them, one for me” has finished his career making one for him. Side Effects is a tense, taut thriller, and it should make you think twice about all those sunny TV ads for anti-depression drugs that rattle off possible side-effects. Like Silver Linings Playbook, it is unfussily directed: Soderbergh is not terribly interested in pretty compositions, but he still knows how to tell a decent story. He is the cinematographer and the editor, and the film has been shot digitally without looking in any way cheap. He has a reputation for filming fast with little rehearsal time, and it obviously works. He has got excellent performances from his cast, which includes a villainous, hot Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Verdict: Four prescription pads out of five.
- American Hustle’s David O. Russell a master of the cast system (canada.com)
- Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick (yegbookstravaganza.wordpress.com)