Friday, 1 February 2013

Silver Lining Storybook

Movie review time!

Don't go away, it's not going to be entirely irrelevant.  And I won't gush about the plot, or get all keyed up about the potential awards coming their way, but I did find Silver Linings Playbook surprisingly enjoyable.  I am not normally a romantic comedy kind of person.  I just finished Season 4 of Breaking Bad on Netflix, and on occasion I cackled along with Walter White as he descended into madness, because I was just so taken with how powerful and indulgently good the writing was.

You know writing is good when it has the confidence to just run with something truly ridiculous and act like it is the most profound thing in the world.  SLP was a film that clearly was unashamed of its flighty, misfit nature.  I have not read the book (yet; I do hear good things), but the story of the film was one that seemed to go all over the place.  Normally that would spell disaster - I have seen far too many unfocused and therefore unfunny comedies in the past year.  Seeking A Friend for the End of the World was one.  The trailer looked quite humorous but they squeezed just about every laugh from the film into those two minutes (and a couple that didn't even make the final cut), leaving an incoherent discourse that could not decide what it wanted to be and, like a pothead without drive or ambition, just kind of hung around with a couple of quirky characters until falling asleep.

Not so Silver Linings Playbook.  On the surface it is the most standard of rom-com fare: boy meets girl, boy proves himself, boy wins girl.  The girl is a MacGuffin, a woman literally objectified and turned into a trophy for the hero to overcome odds and risk terrible consequences in order to capture.  As a feminist that plot point gets annoying and played out; as a romantic and somebody whose lonely adolescence was filled with fantasies where doing x would magically make me good enough to win y girl, it is embarrassingly satisfying.  I can see why it still sells.  Yet this story did what Hollywood is pathologically afraid to do - it did it differently.

I will try to avoid spoiling the plot too much (as much as one can spoil a romantic comedy's standard story), but if you really care about going into this film cold (and haven't seen it yet - it's been out for five or six weeks), you might want to look away now.  In short, the story begins in media res, after the inciting incident where our protagonist Pat finds his wife in the shower with another man and beats him so severely he is incarcerated in a mental hospital.  Skipping this action is an unusual take and one that was particularly surprising since a comedy could have made plenty of hay out of a bipolar man snapping and beating the crap out of his wife's illicit lover.  Instead we begin with him leaving the facility and planning to get on with his life and, he hopes, return to his wife.

We have a protagonist (Pat).  We have a vulnerability (mental health issues, rage and insecurity) and we have a goal (get his wife back).  It's as clear cut a beginning as a story could ever hope for.  Pat starts down the road, trying to get in shape and read his wife's syllabus to show how much he cares.  An aside - it may have been a good idea to cast somebody who was not already looking like an Adonis if the producers wanted a character who felt the need to 'get in shape'.  'Hollywood ugly' is an irritating problem, and it really does nobody any favours to imply that Bradley Cooper somehow needed to work out.

Back to the story, Pat hits some obstacles to his goal (we're really hitting all the notes on this story).  His wife doesn't want to see him, his family are trying to dissuade him from trying to get back together with her, and his mental health is not as controlled as his parole officer would like.  While jogging in order to drop the absolutely zero excess weight this fit and handsome gentleman is carrying, he meets up with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).  She also has mental health issues, which in movie-land translates to being blunt, rude and very forward.  She's quirky, and of course attractive, so we know immediately she will be the magic pixie who will fix poor Pat's first world problems.

So far, so much cheese.  It is bog standard rom-com fare, aside from dodging the bullet of making Pat's breakdown an on-screen joke.  But then things get interesting.  Pat and Tiffany become friends.  Real friends, who hang out and work on a project together and have weird private jokes.  Pat still wants his wife and Tiffany will help if he is her partner in a dance competition.  It's a premise designed for awkward man-handling and tense staredowns, but these are essentially absent from the film.  They practice dancing together in scenes where the characters appear to be having fun, without the film beating sexual tension over the audience's heads.

I could have phrased that better.

In the end, Pat is put into a position where somehow his parents' life savings are resting on the result of his dancing with Tiffany.  He really tries for her, but not for her.  He's trying because he cares about his family and he cares about his friend's dream and he respects her.  On the surface, his climactic showdown is supposed to be about winning his wife, the previously unseen MacGuffin of the film.  It's a strange picture that has the lead character chasing a woman who we don't even get to see until the climax.  How are we supposed to be awed by the beauty of this human-object so that we understand what sexiness is at stake?  And wasn't magic pixie Tiffany supposed to be the new object to pursue?  Pat ultimately comes through and makes an effort for other people, showing that he has grown, but strangely not for the sake of winning either woman.  He does begin a relationship with Tiffany, but this is a mutual decision later, she does not stand waiting on a podium for him to pluck her into the air.  In fact plucking her into the air goes rather badly.

It makes zero sense on paper but the whole film just asks you to indulge its convolutions, and against all my training and instincts as a writer, I let myself be carried along for the ride.  Apparently its complete lack of shame or self-consciousness paid off, because the Academy found it refreshing enough to nominate the picture in numerous categories.  I walked out of the theatre confused, wondering why it was that I had enjoyed the mess I had just seen.  It probably helped that unlike most comedies I've seen recently, this one had a good number of laughs.  But more than that, it took its time and let the characters just hang around with one another, developing a friendship that was palpable on-screen and not simply a forced coupling of two attractive actors.  In particular, the characters had respect for one another.  This was not a sexual wolf chasing down a deer.  The happy ending was an egalitarian arrangement, not a conquest.

It's a very strange story, one that flirts with the most standard of clichés one minute before dashing off into brave new territory the next.  It is a story that's not afraid to tell itself, undaunted by the expectations of form or function, and it is encouraging to see this boldness rewarded.

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