Robert De Niro

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings PlaybookThe Pitch: Madness is all in the mind.

The Review: If you visit my Twitter profile, you’ll find this at the top of the page, my vaguely self-deprecating description:

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Now, for anyone that’s read any amount of this blog, you’ll be aware that I have a somewhat addictive personality. When I invest in a subject, I tend to invest hard, having seen 635 films in the cinema in the last five years and 447 of those since I started writing this blog. But if you think that’s an actual OCD, then you’re very wrong; obsessive, clearly, but it lacks the physical compulsions which can debilitate its sufferers and in the most severe cases ruin their lives. I’ve always known that the day I start a family is the day that my cinema dwelling will dwindle to nothing for a while, and I’m ready for when that day comes. But from schizophrenia to psychosis, mental illness is generally misunderstood in our society, so any film looking to imbue its characters with such afflictions would be advised to tread carefully.

Silver Linings Playbook features a number of characters who have an array of mental difficulties: Pat (Bradley Cooper) is discharged from a mental hospital after his mother (Jacki Weaver) intervenes, but struggles to come to terms with both his home life and the absence of his wife, estranged after Pat’s bipolar disorder came to the fore when he catches her cheating. His only real friend (Chris Tucker) is still struggling with his own mental health issues and regularly attempts to escape from the same hospital, but even he can see that the more classically depressed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has an interest in Pat, but both Pat and Tiffany have their own deeper motivations for wanting to spend time with the other. Meanwhile Pat also struggles to reform a bond with his father (Robert De Niro), who shows his own signs of both obsessive behaviour and addiction and which start to come to the fore when Pat struggles.

In terms of the film itself, it’s worthwhile trying to separate the characters from their afflictions for the depictions of mental illness are shaky at best. Oddly, Chris Tucker fares best in that respect, as he appears outwardly normal and little attempt is made to characterise his illness, which actually makes his the best description. For the others (Pat / Pat Sr. / Tiffany) the seeds of their illnesses can be seen, but the characteristics are poorly sown by David O. Russell’s script (based on Matthew Quick’s novel) and somehow the Asperger’s syndrome of Pat’s literary counterpart attempts to become bipolar disorder here. It wouldn’t matter so much if the characters were more generally well written, but the script gives them little else to feed off for most of the time and when it does, the contrast is sharp; Jennifer Lawrence fares best in that respect, again getting the chance to show off the skills that got her recognised for Winter’s Bone and in one pivotal scene, waltzing in and acting everyone else, De Niro included, off the screen. Cooper, De Niro, Weaver and even Tucker put in good work but this turns out to be Jennifer Lawrence’s show.

Successfully portraying mental illness on screen is one challenge that Silver Linings meets only with partial success; the other half hearted attempt is to put a new wrinkle on the romantic comedy. For a film so serious for much of its running time, the occasional laughs sit uncomfortably, although thankfully they are driven out of the situations and never at the expense of the characters themselves. But the third act turns into the kind of romantic comedy plot that’s hamstrung the careers of the likes of Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, and it’s only the likeability of Lawrence and Cooper that helps to see it through. It is predictable in the extreme, and once the pieces are laid out the last act plays out with a total lack of surprise and not much more suspense. It’s a totally mixed bag directorially from Russell as well, shepherding his characters through to the resolution with only occasional flashes of the touch which he’s shown in his best films. A mixed bag all round then, worth seeing for the performances but not doing very much to advance just about anything else.

Why see it at the cinema: The drama of the last act comes across well in the cinema, even if it is lacking in surprise, but it’s not enough of a comedy to benefit from the audience buzz and there’s nothing remarkable in direction or cinematography. If you’re keen, worth catching in the cinema, but otherwise wait for the DVD.

The Score: 6/10

Review: Limitless

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The Pitch: Forget the red or blue ones, the smart people take the clear pill.

The Review: Bradley Cooper really did seem to be the only possible choice to play Templeton Peck in last year’s A-Team remake. The dashing looks and grin that errs just on the right side of sleazy had already been put to good use in films such as The Hangover and Yes Men, and those rare qualities have now given him a big leading role of his own. But what if that potential lays within us all? To be smart, funny, to look effortlessly cool and to be one step ahead; and all it would take is a little clear pill. For normal Bradley Cooper it would take a lot of work to undo that, but here he’s rocking the grunge look and hitting deadlines with the accuracy of a blind man with no thumbs trying to pin a tail on a fast moving donkey. So when one clear pill comes his way, it doesn’t feel like there’s much to lose.

But by then we’ve already had a taste of what’s to come, and with every pill come choices and consequences. (That said, if I could take one pill and end up meeting Robert De Niro, I’d probably swallow now and ask questions later.) The consequences soon start piling up for Cooper’s Eddie Mora, from the side effects of the drug to the possibility of those who want the drug themselves coming knocking, and those risks come increasingly with the threat of violence. As parable for conventional drug use, it’s pretty effective in its clear demonstration of both the attraction and the risks, and indeed the lengths that Eddie, or any other addict for that matter, will go to in order to maintain their habit.

Bradley Cooper does exactly what you’d expect of him in the role, but he earns his money because he does what he does very well indeed. He’s on screen almost constantly, and there are only two others that have any significant screen time. Abbie Cornish gets the girlfriend role, and is a little anonymous (unfortunately for her, Anna Friel gets much more to do in less screen time), but the big disappointment is Robert De Niro. At his best when either raging or quietly simmering, here he’s congenial but fails crucially to convey any weight to his acting, or indeed much interest in what he’s asked to do. So much of the work in keeping us interested falls to Cooper, and thankfully he’s up to the task.

The other people hard to keep us interested are screenwriter Leslie Dixon, whose script doesn’t always follow the predictable path (apart from a flash-forward opening on a high rooftop that feels a little clichéd), and director Neil Burger. Burger is best known for the Edward Norton starrer The Illusionist, which had a stately, period feel; in the more contemporary setting, he makes use of a variety of different visual tricks and creates a visceral thrill ride which keeps Limitless moving forward quickly enough that you can overlook the odd flaw or cheesy moment in the plotting. It’s only late on, when De Niro comes more to the fore and consequently the plot’s creaking becomes more apparent, that things sag, and it doesn’t help that the ending feels slightly like a cheat. Still, while not limitless, Bradley Cooper still has plenty of potential still to exploit, and on the strength of this should go further.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s a real Fight Club vibe in the use of the visuals early on, and Burger makes fantastic use of the screen. Just a shame he runs out of steam late on.

The Score: 7/10