Saturday, November 24, 2012

A silver lining

The surest way to jinx your plans? Give voice to them.

In Wednesday's post, I announced my likelihood of being able to attend a 1:50 3D showing of Life of Pi. Then I didn't make it in time.

But really, is it a jinx if something was simply never realistic in the first place? First off, I was getting off work at 1:30, and you never leave at the exact minute you're supposed to clock out. Secondly, the drive to the theater would have taken the better part of 15 minutes even in normal traffic. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is most decidedly not normal traffic, and you should probably at least double your expected travel times. But even if it had taken only slightly longer than normal to drive there, there's still a parking garage you have to navigate, and a walk of three minutes or so to the theater, even if you are moving quickly. Never mind the fact that a large popcorn was going to be my lunch, and there's always at least one person ahead of you in the snack bar line.

Fortunately, it wasn't one of those situations where I was close enough to even chance it, making me commit a lot of time and energy to a fool's errand. At 1:48, when I was still more than a mile from the theater, I pulled over and jumped on my phone's web browser to figure out other options. I knew there were no more Pi showings that were at a convenient time, so now I was looking for something else.

And so, the silver lining to missing Life of Pi? Silver Linings Playbook.

Which was playing at 2:35 in downtown Culver City, about three miles from the theater where I meant to see Pi. 

I love the work of director David O. Russell, but until now, that had been based primarily on the strength of three movies that were all released in the 1990s: Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings. I hated I Heart Huckabees and ended up thinking The Fighter was good but not great.

Suffice it to say that Silver Linings Playbook had me wondering if it might rank up there with his two masterpieces, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings.

The interesting thing about Russell as a filmmaker isn't that he consistently breaks new ground or blows your mind with some kind of unique technique. After his debut, which you could say was pretty unusual as it dealt with mother-son incest and featured a euphemism for masturbation as its title, I'd argue that Russell has mostly just been giving us really fresh takes on genres we're familiar with. Flirting with Disaster was a fresh take on a screwball comedy, while Three Kings was a fresh take on the war movie (albeit with some genuinely innovative camera and narrative techniques). Has there been a genre that's been more worked over throughout the history of cinema than the boxing movie? Yet most people felt that The Fighter was a really fresh take on that genre.

You could say that the only time Russell really gets himself into trouble is when he tries to indulge his more off-the-wall impulses. Enter I Heart Huckabees, a disaster that was much more than flirted with. A satire about commercialism featuring a pair of existential detectives, Huckabees was a misstep from minute one. It may be no coincidence that this shoot featured the short-fused director's most famous blow-up, a verbal scrum with Lily Tomlin that developed a life of its own on the internet. (He also reportedly nearly or actually came to blows with George Clooney on Three Kings, though that didn't hamper the brilliance of that film one bit.)

In fact, I considered calling this post (and wouldn't it have been clever) "Burning Bridges Playbook," because I realized that the director rarely works with the same actor twice. But then I recalled that not only was Huckabees his second (and obviously last) collaboration with Tomlin, after Flirting with Disaster, but Mark Wahlberg has worked with him three times: Three Kings, Huckabees and The Fighter. The last two were the important ones for this discussion, because Wahlberg continued on with him even after the famous Tomlin incident and his weakest film on a relatively short resume.

Besides, I didn't want to concentrate on the negative in a post about a film I liked as much as I liked this one.

Silver Linings Playbook finds Russell returning again to his success with reinvigorated genre films. In fact, as I was watching this movie, I was reminded most of last year's Crazy, Stupid, Love. Like that film, Playbook reminds us that a romantic comedy can really stick with you just by being cast and written well. And it doesn't even need to do anything particularly unconventional.

The difference is that Russell is a much better (or at least more established) filmmaker than Crazy's Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and he brings elements of his best work into elevating his own script for Playbook. Watching the film, I was also reminded how well the director does chaotic scenes with multiple people arguing, which have been prominent components of especially Disaster and The Fighter. And the arguers have been cast perfectly here. Bradley Cooper won't get an Oscar nomination, but should -- Robert DeNiro and Jennifer Lawrence probably will, and Lawrence might even win. They're all that good. Heck, even Chris Tucker is really good in a small part. Cooper and Lawrence also succeed at something you rarely see these days -- a smoldering, undeniable chemistry.

But I have to wonder if part of what makes Silver Linings Playbook so satisfying is that it may be Russell's most personal film. At least in terms of what we've already discussed about him. A guy with bipolar disorder given to fits of rage and occasional violence? That could probably describe Russell himself just as well as it could describe Cooper's Pat Solitano. Which means Russell is uniquely qualified to dramatize that fugue that takes over during a panic attack, where sounds fade to the background and a ringing of the ears surfaces to the front.

What's amazing is that Russell tackles such serious issues and gives us several scenes that are intense to the point of disturbing, while still keeping the movie essentially light and "feel good" (in the best sense of that phrase).

Only the guy who brought us Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings, right?

Here's hoping that the director has found his own silver lining in a sometimes troubled career, and the plays he draws up in the future will be more masterpieces like this one.


Nick Prigge said...

YES!!!! I think you're missing "Life of Pi" was meant to be (but then I think most everything is meant to be). Saw this one last weekend, could NOT shake it from my mind, suspected I knew what I felt and had seen, and so then I dragged a friend along with me so I could watch it again and confirm......which is a long way of saying it's my favorite movie of the year.

It's technically too early to make that call I suppose but I always know this exactly when I know. And I know. (And I hated "I Heart Huckabees" too.)

Vancetastic said...


It's in my #1 spot right now too. (I compile my list as I go, modifying the total list with every new film I see.) It doesn't feel like the kind of movie that SHOULD be a contender for my top spot, but I also can't doubt my own impressions.

A second theatrical screening of a movie, especially during awards season, when there's so much to see? Yeah, you love that movie.

Glad that you also could not tolerate the terminal quirkiness of Huckabees.