A “Playlist,” Fracking, and “Le Miz”
By Daniel Cohen, Santa Monica Reporter
I count only two interesting comedies on my list of memorable films from 2012; “Moonrise Kingdom,” released this summer and now on video, and “Silver Linings Playbook,” which has just gone into national release, and will probably remain in theaters through the awards season. See it!
It wasn’t that a handful of the years’ comedies failed to provide adequate laughs; “Ted,” “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” “21 Jump Street,” and “Project X,” all delivered their share. It’s just that none of them were particularly interesting as movies. As much as I enjoyed the outrageous satire of “The Dictator,” for example, it was a slap dash, hit and miss affair, better in part than in whole. Yes, I know: honest laughs are to come by. Still, they need meat on their bones. And nobody ever said comedy was easy.
Both “Moonrise,” and “Playbook” are qualitatively better than their less ambitious relations, in that they satisfy on more than one level. Both place more emphasis on texture, character, and story than knee jerk laughs. Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic take on adolescence has been discussed here at length and is now showing up on many ten best lists. David O. Russell’s comedy, a smartly rigged battle of the sexes, has stimulated talk of year end awards. Expect nominations for the director, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper.
Pat Solitaro, (Bradley Cooper,) an obsessive-compulsive, nursing wounds from a catastrophic break up, is released from a mental hospital to the custody of his parents, played by Robert DeNiro and British character actor, Jackie Weaver. Pat quickly proves himself difficult to both his folks and his therapist, via sudden outbursts that characterize unresolved stumbling blocks, most of which are tied to his relationship with the former spouse. Along comes a sexy neighbor, Tiffany, a widow with her own adjustment issues, who immediately sets her sights on the handsome, but wounded Pat. The two mildly troubled protagonists are soon engaged in the kind of push and pull dynamics that are more familiar to students of screwball comedies from the 1930s than practitioners of modern psychotherapy.
During its early, platform release in the major cities, this movie elicited a lot of talk about tragi-comic elements, which I am given to understand, parallel Mathew Quick’s novel, on which Russell and the author based the screenplay. Critics’ quotes extolling sudden shifts in tone, of the laugh one minute, cry the next variety, (that seldom work in movies,) appeared in the national press. But there were few dramatic speed bumps in the robust comedy I saw. Yes, there’s a whiff of jeopardy as Pat’s narcissism roils through the first half hour. Early on he comes across as a self centered pest. But the movie’s screenplay steers clear of pathos, putting most of its energy into Pat and Tiffany’s herky jerky courtship. Before it can turn nasty the context of mental illness, is displaced by the less distressing problems of boy versus girl. The movie references Hepburn and Tracy far more often than Freud and Jung.
There was real skin on the table in Russell’s last family chronicle, “The Fighter,” from 2010. But that was a different movie: there was a genuine conflict of objectives in that outfit, with the career of a promising boxer at stake. “Playbook” sets up a network of family problems, but they remain at arm’s distance from Pat and Tiffany, which, in this case, is all to the good. Sooner rather than later, the movie focuses what we really care about; the incremental advances the two make toward each over the course of the film’s leisurely two hour running time.
One of the major differences between “Playbook,” and its screwball relatives from the last century is the setting; the middle class. Rough and tumble suburban Philadelphia stands in for the stolid and landed Main Line. Working class neighborhoods in the “great Northeast” take the place of country estates or upscale Manhattan apartments. Jeans and football jerseys have been substituted for suits and gowns. But the formula has remained intact.
As in “The Fighter,” there’s a strong supporting cast. Chris Tucker is a welcome as one of Pat’s fellow patients. Unlike so many movie sidekicks he’s more of a help than a hindrance, a nice touch. Tucker is less frantic here than in the “Rush Hour” franchise or “The Fifth Element.” Credit director Russell for keeping the comic actor grounded in his strongest role to date. DeNiro serves up the same mannerisms that he has deployed in countless other comic vehicles, but here he’s smoother. His tendency to rely on facial contortions to convey humor has been kept in check by smarter lines and direction, which he has lacked elsewhere. Weaver, in the thankless role of helpless mom gets more out the material than is written.
Bradley Cooper, who has been effective in the two shock comedy hits “The Hangover I and II,” is convincing as a self centered narcissist, even though the results of his excesses barely register. He never comes across as disturbing enough to land in an institution, maybe because he’s just too sweet looking. Never mind; all that occurs before the curtain goes up.
Finally the movie’s true center, and its great trump card, is Jennifer Lawrence, in her most expansive performance to date. To say that the young star of “The Hunger Games,” and “Winter’s Bone” runs away with the movie is to understate the sturdy and persistent vision of writer/director Russell, but Lawrence has taken every nuance and worked it for maximum impact. At only 22 she convincingly generates the body and soul of a woman ten years older. There were reports that the producers were reluctant to cast her, owing to her youth. She has now proved them massively wrong. Her performance here recalls Carole Lombard at her peak.
One of the reasons “Playbook” works so thoroughly, even in its most predictable passages, is the way it balances our own romantic longings against the conventions of romantic comedy. We know from the start that Pat and Tiffany are destined to get together; the issue is how. What we hope for is that the relationship progresses with enough credibility for us to project our own fantasies onto the characters. And they need to be evoked by more than just snappy dialogue. On this level the movie truly delivers: manifest in Tiffany’s body language as she chases Pat down the street, or during the dance lessons she improbably foists on him. It’s in Pat’s futile attempts to erase her from his consciousness, long after we’ve acknowledged her as irresistible. We may want to crown the big lout as he babbles on about getting back with his ex-wife at the same time he stares into the eyes of a sexual dynamo who’s all but thrown herself at him, but we know his resistance can’t last, and luxuriate in its absurdity. Although trouble is on the periphery of their chemical makeup there’s little real disaster hanging over either characters’ head, so we enjoy their difficulties without fearing an accident of fate or other cliché intervening to jerk tears out of us in the last reel.
The rules of attraction are the stuff of our romantic fantasies, and the team behind “Silver Linings Playbook” has shown the good sense to position them front and center. It may seem like a small achievement, but it’s not. The movie is honestly enjoyable.
Director Gus Van Sant has worked in several modes, ranging from concrete middle brow dramas to open ended and lyrical think pieces. He’s successfully courted the mainstream with the skillful “Milk,” “To Die For,” and “Good Will Hunting,” and on a more personal level pleased art house audiences with the introspective “My Own Private Idaho,” “Last Days,” and “Elephant.” He can ground his work in easily approachable narrative or address more adventurous tastes. While his off kilter projects incline toward limited release, they often end up on critics ten best lists. Van Sant has several sides, all of them intriguing.
“Promised Land” is aimed at a general audience but its one of his less compelling works. The focus; “fracking,” a controversial, but by no means novel method of extracting natural gas from deep within the earth, is a hot button issue of the moment that’s unlikely to be settled any time soon. But this movie, though expertly acted and directed, adds little to the arguments, pro or con. It boasts one interesting story turn, that in a more ambitious script, would have been one of several. And while the pacing and cinematography are appealing, the movie’s energy dissipates long before the conclusion.
There may be no way to make drama out of an issue like fracking, which may be better suited to the resources of documentary. But that shouldn’t have prevented the writers, in this case actors John Krasinski and Matt Damon, from contriving a more arresting drama, perhaps by using the dilemmas of a small town sitting on top of large gas reserves as the background instead of the engine that drives the story. What the creative team delivers is TV movie compact and efficient, but dramatically inert. There’s a lot of talk about traditional values, the difficulty of sustaining family farms, and the environment, but most of it is predictable. The entire movie is more of an opening than a finished piece.
Matt Damon is better than the material and keeps us interested in the introduction. Frances McDormand, by now an old pro, and Rosemary DeWitt, seen mainly on TV, provide a few sparks, but the pleasant surprise is John Krasinski, who delivers a livelier performance than we’re accustomed to seeing on his long running series, “The Office.” Krasinski the writer has delivered a crackling good role for Krasinski the actor. He and Damon have brought a strong director to the table, but haven’t given him enough rough material to work his usual magic.
This fully rigged realization of the smash musical would be unthinkable without the most recent advances in digital imagery. Lacking CGI the production would have run to hundreds of millions. As it is, the boldly imagined locales and gloriously recorded music set the studios back a mere 60 million, about a quarter of what was spent on “The Avengers.” Director Tom Hooper, whose expressive “The King’s Speech,” was such a welcome surprise, has contrived an even more imaginative visual palette for the sprawling and epic musical drama.
The movie is off the charts visually. A stupendous opening, involving the mooring of a ship by masses of slaves, comes and goes so quickly it’s almost thrown away. Before we can fully explore their intricacies, densely populated cityscapes, mostly of 19th century Paris, appear and disappear. Hooper has insisted that non-musical actors like Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe perform their own singing. And if you can believe the press, it was all done on the movie’s stunning sets, and in real time. Hugh Jackman, a tried and true musical performer, realizes Jean Valjean with feeling and skill. Unlikely as it seems, Hathaway delivers one of the movie’s highpoints with her big song, “I Had a Dream,” done almost entirely in close up, and what struck me as a single take. Powerful and heartfelt.
The movie may be a little too overstuffed with spectacle, tears, and plot turns for its own good, but the high points are very high, and they keep coming. Two raucous set pieces, one in a factory, the other in a tavern, provide welcome comic relief. Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are directed with such invention they almost stop the movie. The lack of dialogue can grate at times, but the music soars at others. My only serious reservation has to do with the casting of Russell Crowe, an imposing physical presence as the obsessed police man, but a poor substitute for the stout baritone the role commands. Crowe summons the drama but falls short as a singer, and the movie, for better or worse, is almost entirely libretto.
Back in 1968, the great British director, Carol Reed, who had contrived one of the greatest dramas of the period, “The Third Man,” took up the challenge of turning Broadway’s “Oliver” into a textured movie musical. Using the best technology available to him, he reached similar heights in balancing a large visual canvas with moments of emotional intimacy. While the movie was financially successful Reed was taken to task by a number of high minded critics: The then towering critic Pauline Kael called “Oliver” a “lead pastry.” It seems to me that “Les Miz” has been clouted with some of the same condescending brick-bats. No matter, audiences have made it a hit in its first week.