David O. Russell’s new film “The Silver Linings Playbook” was shot in and around Philadelphia, but it may as well be set in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry or any number of quaint, fictional, quirky Anytowns from television yore. Aside from the presence of iPods and its contemporary music and sports references, the film contains no trappings of modern society. Characters don’t use telephones, let alone computers; they constantly bump into each other in person, and everybody knows everybody, as if their city blocks were one large commune. There is apparently one cop in town, and he’s also the main character’s parole officer – he materializes like Superman at every skirmish. Impromptu physical collisions become the norm, and so many coincidences abound that they no longer feel like coincidences; they’re more like contrived wrenches thrown into the film’s strange mix of mental-illness drama and eye-rolling romantic comedy.
From Russell’s first film, “Spanking the Monkey,” on through “I Heart Huckabee’s,” his vision has always been a peculiar, idiosyncratic one, and the milieu of “The Silver Linings Playbook” is equally hard to place. Based on Matthew Quick’s novel, it’s about a bipolar former teacher named Pat (Bradley Cooper), newly discharged from an 8-month stint in a mental hospital after nearly killing the lover of his wife (both also teachers). He doesn’t want to build a new life so much as reconstruct his disastrous old one. He pines for his estranged wife, who has placed a restraining order on him, while forging through every book on her latest high-school syllabus.
At a strained dinner meeting with some friends, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an equally bipolar widow whose sex addiction following her husband’s freak-accident death has made her the neighborhood pariah. It’s obvious from the first moment that these damaged souls should be together, but Russell effectively makes us wait, playing off their electric chemistry with penetrating stars and silences pregnant with sexual repression. Their love-hate dynamic is fascinating and unpredictable to watch: Neither has any social decorum, you never know what they’ll say next, and you never know what will set either of them off. Cooper, in particular, embodies the bipolar condition with occasionally frightening accuracy, acting the part with his eyes, dialogue and the most minute mannerisms.
The Silver Linings Playbook as its best when Russell observes his protagonist’s sudden mood shifts, slipping from comedy to tragedy and back to comedy in several unnerving scenes. Robert De Niro, as Pat’s superstitious, degenerate bookie father, is even better. The actor has no sense of quality control in the films he chooses, but this is an intense, desperate performance full of surprise and nuance. It’s possibly De Niro’s best work in decades – a much-needed reminder that he can still dominate the room when given a decent character.
I’m sad to say that for all the wonderful genre slipperiness and excellent acting that “The Silver Linings Playbook” has going for it, the movie kind of falls apart in its third act. The smoldering chemistry between Tiffany and Pat simply devolves into vanilla rom-com clichés. Suddenly, his lovers see the world with such striking clarity that it’s as if Russell forgot his characters were mentally ill. Yes, Pat had started to take medications, but Cooper’s performance doesn’t reflect this: He seems altogether too normal and in tune with society. Ultimately, “The Silver Linings Playbook” is only superficially satisfying, as emotionally believable as its picturesque small-town setting is physically recognizable.
“Lincoln,” which opened in theaters nationwide last Friday but which may be the biggest box office draw over Thanksgiving weekend, may just be the wonkiest political ever made. Steven Spielberg’s two-and-a-half-hour, unabashedly talky, Civil War-era “West Wing” episode that feels like a historical missive lobbed across the centuries, with its target our modern hyper-partisan gridlock.
The action takes place almost entirely in one month – January 1865 – as President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been elected to his second term. The Civil War raging on for its fourth bloody year, Lincoln is putting all of his eggs – and political capital – into the 13th amendment, which will abolish slavery and, he expects, end the war. Working alongside his famous “team of rivals” (the movie was based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s nonfiction best-seller), he must convince 20 Democrats to support the bill in the House of Representatives, even if it costs money and job promotions to woo the intransigent pols to the right side of history. Watching the thrilling, acrid business of politicking in the 19th century all but shatters the oft-repeated misconception that today’s partisans are more divided and contemptuous of one another than ever before. In “Lincoln,” one Congressman almost shoots another for suggesting he see things the president’s way, and the invectives the representatives exchange with each other would make Alan Grayson and Allen West blush. The legislative body is out of order as much as in order in “Lincoln,” but, as we know, the amendment passed, with wide bipartisan support. Huzzah! Democracy!
The screenplay, by “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner, is a marvel of wit, eloquence and drama, filled with Beltway jargon, cutting zingers, philosophical asides and stunning rhetorical flourishes. If it’s possible for anyone to dominate Spielberg’s direction, Kushner does so here, and by avoiding his own sentimental trappings that have weakened nearly every Spielberg picture, “Lincoln” is one of the director’s best, and most adult, films of his career. And what a cast, with nearly every supporting player a recognizable face, from Tommy Lee Jones’ sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, the most liberal voice in the House; to David Strathairn, as Secretery of State William Seward; Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln; and James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson in smaller but crucial roles.
All of them ping and pong around the unassumingly powerful figure of Daniel Day-Lewis like atoms around a nucleus. As always, Day-Lewis loses himself completely within the part, adopting a treelike physique, stooped gait and downcast gaze of a president whose folksy little narratives his staff must endure are just about the only thing that prevent him from succumbing to complete exhaustion. Indeed, he always looks tired, the way a wartime president on the brink of a world-changing decision is supposed to look. But every time he opens his mouth, his words pack a punch.
For all the film’s intricately detailed, chatty, chess-game glad-handing inside Washington’s halls of power, Spielberg and Kushner occasionally take the longer view – panning out from the politics to linger on the severed limbs of wounded servicemen that are transported by wheelbarrow to their burial site like so much debris. It’s in these silent observations, as much as the congressional repartee, that creates the president’s impossibly surmounted stakes. The man freed us from war and freed an entire race of people, and shortly afterwards he died for our sins. This movie shows us that even with his imperfections and base calculations, Lincoln is the closest we’ve ever had to a deity in the White House – an ongoing inspiration for both parties in a nation still divided.