Silver Linings Playbook

Mental illness doesn’t seem like a likely subject on which to anchor a comedy. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about a quarter of Americans are living with a diagnosable mental disorder—ranging from depression to schizophrenia to autism—but it’s not exactly a go-to film trope. Nevertheless, David O. Russell’s optimistic, joyful film Silver Linings Playbook manages to capture the experience of mental illness in a way that is both truthful to the reality of bipolar disorder, and a life-affirming portrayal of recovery.

The movie opens as Pat (Bradley Cooper) prepares to leave the mental institution where he’s been treated for the past eight months. Silver Linings Playbook relies on Pat to convey the experience of a healing mental patient, and Cooper delivers wonderfully. Pat’s determination to change, and his frustration when he backslides are portrayed with enough passion to be effective, but Cooper never goes overboard into melodrama territory. The actor, who is best known for appearing in the Hangover films has, through a series of smart choices, managed to elevate his career to that of Serious Actor. Pat’s mood swings and outbursts, which could have become overbearing in another actor’s hands, are instead moments in which the audience gains insight into his troubled experience.

Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) come to see that they share the right kind of crazy.

Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) come to see that they share the right kind of crazy.

Did I mention that this film is a comedy? Despite the heavy subject matter, Russell (who also wrote the movie, based on the novel by Matthew Quick) deftly sets up a narrative that is funny, engaging, and original enough that the last half hour is just as enjoyable as the first. A large portion of the jokes are dealt out to supporting players, including a surprisingly sweet role by Chris Tucker, in his first non-Rush Hour film in 16 years. Robert De Niro, who’s taken to phoning in most of his credits of the past decade, is less cartoonish and more honest than we’ve seen him in years. De Niro plays Pat Sr., a Philadelphia Eagles fan-turned-bookie so enamored with his hometown team that he literally only appears onscreen wearing Eagles paraphernalia.

And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence. Though she doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film, Lawrence quickly establishes herself as a major presence, and a perfect foil to Cooper’s character. She plays Tiffany, a tough, dramatic young widow who’s not particularly sane either. Both Tiffany and Pat speak entirely without subtext, voicing what everyone around them is thinking, often at inappropriate moments. Pat’s speech is spiced with psychiatric jargon, and his and Tiffany’s dialogue, particularly her righteous diatribe near the end of the film, is some of Russell’s best work ever.

Pat’s motivation for getting better is entirely based on reestablishing his relationship with his wife, who’s filed a restraining order against him after his breakdown. Tiffany promises to get a letter to her … if he’ll be Tiffany’s partner in a ballroom dance competition. I know this premise sounds a little weak, but Russell handles the story with clever delicacy, and the combative relationship between Tiffany and Pat becomes the backbone of the film. Lawrence elevates everything she’s in, and this role, for which she won a Golden Globe just last week, is no exception.

Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) tries to understand his troubled son.

Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) tries to understand his troubled son.

Lawrence isn’t the only one getting acclaim for Silver Linings Playbook, which itself has decent odds of winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards next month. Russell, who was also nominated last year for The Fighter, has again gotten a Best Director nomination in addition to a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. Cooper, De Niro and Jacki Weaver, who plays Pat’s mother, are all nominated in their respective acting categories. In fact, this film is the first since 1981’s Reds to have a horse in all four acting races.

Much of the film’s brilliance can be attributed to Russell’s direction. He employs a risky filmic technique, whirling the camera around the actors’ heads and using a variety of quick zooms, close ups and rapid cuts. But the approach pays off. The camerawork wordlessly conveys Pat’s range of emotions, from anger to hysteria to love. Danny Elfman’s classic rock score, with just a dash of Jack White thrown in, builds upon the expert acting and direction to pull the audience further into this off-kilter endearing little world.

Silver Linings Playbook strikes a delicate balance, dexterously avoiding sappiness in favor of candid joy mixed with a touch of misery. Rarely have I emerged from a theater with such genuine happiness. Who would have thought that a film about bipolar disorder might just be the feel-good movie of the year?

Advertisements

Being John Malkovich

Actors playing themselves has become the perfect comedic shtick to embody the overly ironic, self-referential, postmodern landscape that so-called innovative entertainment has become in the past decade. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes, James van der Beek in Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle all grinningly acknowledge their past television careers, even as these latest performances are projected from inside a tv set. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and pretty much all of the many, many guest stars on 30 Rock, Entourage and Extras play at being mean or hugely egotistical or bizarre. These roles are meant to wink and nudge the audience. See, we’re not really like this. We’re so not like this that it’s funny to pretend we are! But if all this winking and nudging continues, someone’s going to get hurt as the fourth wall come tumbling down on top of them.

That’s not to say these TV shows and films aren’t entertaining. Most of them are really funny, at least for their first seasons. But what does it imply about the state of storytelling today that so many of our best shows sound like fanfiction about actors’ lives? Are we so obsessed with celebrity we’d rather just watch them play themselves? The fact that we get to be in on the joke is just an added bonus, a chance for our own egos to grow to celebrity proportions. Who wouldn’t want to be in on it when the jokester is Neil Patrick Harris himself?

I bring all this up because I recently re-watched Being John Malkovich. The film was released in 1999, just one year before Curb Your Enthusiasm’s first season, and long before having your character’s name match your Christian one was considered de rigueur. And seeing John Malkovich, two-time Oscar nominee play John Malkovich, luckless sucker, is quite a draw. I came for the Malkovich … but I stayed for more than that.

Craig (John Cusack) and Lottie (Cameron Diaz) become obsessed with controlling Malkovich's life.

Craig (John Cusack) and Lotte (Cameron Diaz) become obsessed with controlling Malkovich’s life.

Malkovich playing himself isn’t nearly the weirdest thing about this movie. Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation., Where the Wild Things Are) and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (also Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) make quite the team. I’m loath to think of a film with a more unique plot that holds together so well all the way to the end.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an out-of-work puppeteer who takes a filing job at the insistence of his frazzled wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Craig is hired by LesterCorp, whose office is situated on the 7½ floor of a Manhattan office building. Craig instantly falls in love with his new co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), growing more obsessed with her by the day, though she’s only toying with him.

One day at work, Craig moves a filing cabinet and finds a tiny door behind it. Like the door to the garden in Alice in Wonderland or to the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this miniature entrance leads to a fantastical place. Specifically, to a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, where Craig can experience life as an acclaimed movie star for 15 minutes at a time. Craig and Maxine start selling tickets at $200 a pop.

John Malkovich ... as John Malkovich

John Malkovich … as John Malkovich

Kaufman, who said he originally just wanted to write a film about a man who falls in love with a woman who’s not his wife, has created a bizarre, unique little thought experiment come to vivid, more bizarre life. What would happen if you could be someone else? You still retain your own consciousness, but you are another person? John Malkovich, specifically. More ethical conundrums come up—Craig refers to his experience as a “metaphysical can of worms”—as he discovers he can control Malkovich, trapping the actor inside a body that no longer belongs to him. Making matters worse, Lotte falls in love with Maxine. But Maxine can only return her affection when Lotte’s inside Malkovich.

The actor as puppet is not a new idea—I think Hamlet had something to say on the subject—but Jonze and Kaufman’s film plays with it in new ways. Their second collaboration, Adapatation., is similarly mind-bending. Jonze’ direction is perfectly suited to the material, making the audience feel Craig’s growing uncertainty and Malkovich’s frustration. An Escher-inspired trip through Malkovich’s subconscious and a chimp’s repressed memory are two sequences that capture especially well the director’s distinctive point of view.

Though I applaud Jonze and Kaufman for filming their outlandish ideas in such a way that they don’t fall flat, I do have to say that Being John Malkovich can be an uncomfortable experience. Watching a man lose control of his own body is no picnic—Lotte’s reference to going through the portal as “the Malkovich ride” in particular made me cringe. And Craig’s less and less rational attempts to keep Lotte and Maxine apart begin to sicken the audience and embarrass the character. Additionally, when someone is being Malkovich, their point of view is shot through two eyeholes, which can become dizzying after some minutes. It’s hard to really fault the film for not getting it all right, though, when its concept is so thoroughly original and when it continues, scene after scene, to surprise you.

In fact, many critics have commented that it’s a miracle this film ever got made at all, that it managed to get funding and studio backing. One famous anecdote goes that at a pitch meeting, one bigwig asked, “Why can’t it be called Being Tom Cruise?”

Moonrise Kingdom

There is a basic rule of thumb often imparted to actors about how to chose their roles: never work with children or animals. It’s easy to see why: both are unpredictable, inexperienced, and difficult to control. Wes Anderson attempts to subvert this age-old logic in his latest whimsical homage to the dysfunctional family, Moonrise Kingdom. Unfortunately, he doesn’t succeed.

The movie stars two preteens, both in their first-ever turns in front of the camera: Sam (Jared Gillman), an “emotionally disturbed” wilderness scout, and his surprisingly violent, no-nonsense paramour Suzy (Kara Hayward). The children are both abandoned, physically or emotionally, by their families early in the film. In response, they make a pact to run away together and live in the wilderness of an island off the coast of New England.

Like nearly all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom bears little resemblance to anyone’s actual childhood. The colors are fluorescently bright and the sets and clothing are twee and kitschy as an antique dollhouse. Anderson, who also co-wrote the film with Roman Coppola, fills his young characters with all the wisdom of burned-out adults in one moment, and the precocious innocence and naivety of bright young school children in the next.

Child protagonists Sam (Jared Gillman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) look great, but that's all.

Child protagonists Sam (Jared Gillman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) look great, but that’s all.

This is an unrealistic combination, but that’s what Anderson’s work is all about. The yellow-hued summer meadows and too on-the-nose scout uniforms are constant reminders that Moonrise Kingdom is not intended as a depiction of pseudo-reality, but rather a fairytale, an imagining of what a childhood in the 1960s would be like if that era’s stereotypical tropes were all the decade actually contained.

All of this makes for a very pretty picture, but a rather emotionless center. Sam and Suzy profess their love for one another, experience their first sexual acts, and even get hitched. But they do it all with a dead-eyed, monotone air that makes it appear as though they have no inner monologues at all. The children are meant to proclaim Anderson’s message that, unlike the world-weary, apathetic adults who’ve already bungled their lives, these youngins can still be excited about what the world has to offer them. But directing his actors to sound as though they’re reading stale life philosophies off of cue cards has the opposite affect.

Moonrise Kingdom stars a few of Anderson’s favorites players, including Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, as well as a cadre of other recognizable stars. The adults they portray are given little more emotional depth than their offspring, though their comedic moments—Edward Norton’s continual appearance in a scout uniform comes to mind—are well received. Tilda Swinton, looking like a foreboding airline hostess and referred to only as “Social Services,” is also a treat.

"Moonrise Kindom"'s clueless adults

The clueless adults of “Moonrise Kingdom”

In fact, much of the film’s humor comes from the wardrobe of its overly-dressed characters, outfitted by costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone. Suzy’s mother (Frances McDormand) stomps around the house in waders, and the island’s put-upon meteorologist/historian (Bob Balaban), who also serves as the film’s narrator, shows up in various locations wearing an ensemble that could only be an homage to the Travelocity gnome. Sam insists on donning a coonskin cap, Davy Crockett-style, and both children also appear in animal costumes in at several points throughout the film. All this overly quirky, self-consciously peculiar clothing serves as a mirror to Moonrise Kingdom’s equally bizarre plot, which grows stranger by the scene.

Fans of Anderson’s work will undoubtedly like the film, which is funny and oddball in the extreme. But those looking for a bit more depth over sheer retro quirkiness might want to take a pass.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Everyone I know who loves film has had a similar experience, which usually occurs when they are young, probably in middle school. At that point in their cinematic careers they enjoy watching movies, enjoy spending single-sex sleepovers on their stomachs in front of the screen, and afterwards enjoy repeating back and forth lines absurd or poignant or both.

But then, often without meaning to, they stumble upon a film that’s different. That, for lack of a better term, “speaks to them.” This film has to involve teenagers and it has to be set in high school or camp or the summer after graduation. The film knocks these future cinephiles out cold. It takes all the ennui, the longing, the newly gained feelings of sexuality, the sheer joy and the unending awkwardness that is young life, and it makes them talk.

This film shows them that it’s cool, even wonderful, to be weird. To not understand yourself. To understand yourself too well, and hate everyone around you for it. To want to get out of your hometown so bad, but to be absolutely terrified of what lies beyond the borders of your childhood. This movie romanticizes all your feelings of not fitting in, and makes you feel like a rebel instead of a dweeb.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is this movie. I can imagine that, for many teenagers, it speaks to them. It also speaks to anyone else who’s been a lonely kid in high school. So, everyone.

PerksWallflower_620_091712

Patrick (Ezra Miller, center) is the heart of this tremendous coming-of-age film.

The film is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his 1999 novel of the same name. It follows 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) through his first year of high school.

In middle school, Charlie “got bad.” Perks doesn’t go into explicit detail, but insinuates that he suffered from some sort of depression or mental illness.

On Charlie’s first day he has nowhere to sit in the cafeteria. The only friend he makes is his English teacher (Paul Rudd). Similarly familiar tropes happen, until Charlie ends up sitting next to Patrick (Ezra Miller) at a football game. Patrick and his friend Sam (Emma Watson, in her first substantial post-Potter role) change everything. They take Charlie in, get him high, and introduce him to the Wallflowers, a fantastical group of misfits who, finally, get him. So perfectly damaged, over-it a group could only exist in the movies, but they’re endearing nonetheless.

Particularly notable is Miller, who plays Patrick with gleeful abandon that is tempered by moments of profound sorrow. Patrick could have turned into a caricature, the lonely gay kid who masks his anguish with kooky behavior. But Chbosky and Miller make him better than that, adding purpose to Patrick’s behavior and imbuing him with a deep, deep love for his ragtag companions.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school as a lonely outsider, before he meets an untraditional group of friends.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school as a lonely outsider, before he meets an untraditional group of friends.

Perks’ plot isn’t necessarily original—though the ending packs a punch the audience certainly won’t see coming. It’s not original because it’s set in high school, where the same events happen every year. Homecoming, graduation, freshmen getting bullied. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good. What’s important is that, for the kids for whom this movie was made, it can be an awakening.

My own awakening was called Empire Records. It was made in 1995—though I didn’t see it until some years later—and starred a slew of actors who would go on to have substantial careers, Renée Zellweger chief among them. Empire Records is about a group of young people who work in an old, independent record store. They love music, they love each other, and they are disaffected, angry, lost and beautiful. I saw the movie for the first time with my best friend when I was 13. After the film’s 90 minutes were up, we just sat for a minute. Then we popped it right back into the VCR for a repeat viewing.

Empire Records was a flop (though it has since developed a cult following), and the critics were unimpressed.  But to me, it will always be my first favorite movie, the film that taught me to want to stick out, rather than fit in. I’m sure The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High all inspired similar “first-time” declarations of love. The Perks of Being a Wallflower can be added to this list of great high school movies for Miller’s performance alone. Watson is lovely as well, and in many ways embodies a less extreme, perhaps more relatable high school experience. When she stands in the back of Patrick’s pickup truck, singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” out loud to the night, it’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful and alive.