(David O. Russell, 2012)
Its hard to say just what it is that makes Russell's films so distinctive, but distinctive they are. They feel like his alone, in approach, in style, in vibe. I think its a combination of elements. He has a nervy, almost hysterical angle on character. His people are not always likeable, but they are warmly, messily human; complicated, infuriating creatures with personality defects and evident flaws. His style emphasises this, with a fluid facility with handheld work notable in each of his last few films, the camera restless and mobile, indulging in lots of sweeping pans and long zooms. He loves to use classic rock on his soundtracks, too; Silver Linings Playbook makes beautiful use of Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be", for instance, during a manic episode suffered by Pat (Bradley Cooper).
Pat has just been released from a Mental Hospital into the care of his parents (Jackie Weaver and Robert DeNiro) after finding his wife in the shower with a colleague triggered a violent incident. That incident only revealed a long-undiagnosed bipolar tendency perhaps inherited from his father, who deals with his issues through an obsession with American Football and superstitions around the game. Pat is determined to improve himself for his wife, even though she has filed for a restraining order and left town (his repeated assertions of their love and happiness are the chief signifier of his instability). Meanwhile, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has died, leaving her alternately depressed and manic - perhaps the first manic pixie dreamgirl who actually qualifies - and their initial spark is complicated by both of their disorders, their family situations, and Pat's delusional belief that his wife is waiting for him.
Russell makes the early sections feel like a somewhat frazzled black comedy, filled with dark humour, bitter dialogue, and the many tensions beneath the surface of this troubled family sporadically spurting to the surface. The film then slowly grows more emotional and moving, that bitterness receding to an extent even if it never really quite disappears. The ending is straight romcom, and while some may be disappointed by its outright conventionality, it feels like a triumphant victory over the forces of darkness after the territory plumbed by the material earlier on. Just to make it even more conventional, the last act also has a sport movie tinge, with Pat and Tiffany preparing for and competing in a Ballroom Dance competition, but that sequence is a great example of what makes Russell so interesting: though the stakes are high, he makes a joke of it, with a key move in the routine providing a big laugh.
This is a film focused intently on family, on the damage that our parents can do to us, but about how they can heal us, too. De Niro and Weaver are terrific as Pat's worried parents, the former doing his best work in about a decade. His own explosive issues have informed the way Pat has developed, and yet his love for his son is never in doubt. This is revealed in a handful of great scenes - a couple of emotional, farcelike showdowns in the family home and a tearful confession of fatherly neglect and regret - each of them nicely played without recourse to the usual mugging and stock mannerisms we have seen from the actor in role after role over the last few years.
It is also a film about the world now, with references to the way the economy crushes people, increasing the pressure of everyday life until mental and emotional problems become almost unavoidable. Pat suggests at one point that perhaps he and Tiffany and his friend Danny (Chris Tucker)
are the ones who have seen something the others are simply missing, and you feel the film may agree with him. It certainly sympathises. The world is a cruel, grim place, Russell seems to say, but there is the love of a family and the love between a man and a woman, and that can sometimes make it all alright. That might sound schmaltzy, but his sensibility rejects schmaltz and overt sentiment, preferring a tart view of humanity and a cynical laugh at their ludicrousness, which is a big part of what makes his work, and this film, so compelling.
Apart from all that, and returning to classic rock, has any director ever used Rare Earth on his soundtracks as much as Russell? I think not, and he should be cherished for that...