Oscar Movies: Dysfunctional Love Stories
A strange case, Silver Linings Playbook. It’s basically a romantic comedy, a trifle that got this huge awards push for some reason (Harvey Weinstein) and thus masqueraded as something grander and more important than it is.
Now listen, I have nothing against proclaiming a romantic comedy as a piece of greatness. Romantic comedies are a crucial part of film history. It Happened One Night won a jillion Oscars back in 1935 and it deserved all of them. Annie Hall deserved its award attention in 1978. I am one of those secret Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture, 1998) supporters, even, because I think one, that movie is brilliant, and two, Saving Private Ryan is overrated.
That’s all right. Go scream and bang some dishes. You’ll get over it, and then come back.
I don’t know that Silver Linings Playbook is of the level of those other movies. It Happened One Night is special just because it’s a near-perfect filmic experience in an era when everything about film was newborn. It set precedents for romantic bickering, comedic action, pacing, movie star charisma, everything. Annie Hall is one of those defining-a-generation movies. (Mmmm, zeitgeisty.) Shakespeare in Love succeeds at comedy and drama, and has a perfect screenplay. (Perfect.) Playbook, on the other hand, does not have a perfect screenplay—it strains and is contrived in places. It is not heartbreakingly of its time. It doesn’t feel new about anything.
Here is what Playbook is: a really funny, genuinely romantic, undoubtedly well-acted, charming movie that we’ll all have forgotten in a couple years, but which you will not regret having shelled out a tenner to see. See, my secret is that I love romantic comedies. Despite being perpetually disappointed by them. The modern romantic comedy is terrible. It’s stupid. It’s sexist. It has Gerard Butler in it. Playbook is a movie that boldly proclaims, “A romantic comedy doesn’t have to be terrible!”
Somehow, everybody tried a little harder on this one. The hook is mental illness: Bradley Cooper, our main character, is a man who in his late twenties or early thirties (not sure if he’s playing his own age, or younger; there is some evidence that he is) is newly diagnosed as bipolar. He has a violent incident in his past for which he spent several months in a mental institution. In the opening scene of the movie, his mother has come to check him out, despite everyone’s anxiety that he’s not ready for the stresses of reality.
Cooper’s character, Pat, has convinced himself that he can overcome his own brain functions with exercise and positivity. He feels strong; he feels like he can take that bipolarity and just choke it dead. And I LOVE that the movie acknowledges almost immediately what a bad and erroneous idea this is. Pat goes back on his meds pretty quickly, because brain chemistry and state of mind are different things, something movies almost never tell you. His psychiatrist is also really good. Movie shrinks tend to be terrible; they say ridiculous things, they encourage their patients to do out-of-character, off-the-wall things because they live to establish plot contrivances. Pat’s guy listens, reacts, reframes.
(Beyond that, some of the things the movie has to say about mental illness are weird, at best. Other reviews can fill you in on that, because it didn’t bother me so much.)
Jennifer Lawrence sails in amidst Playbook’s biggest contrivance: healing through dance. Lawrence’s Tiffany, who is clinically depressed, in a self-destructive heavy-eyeliner kind of way, is a ballroom dancer, and she needs a partner for a big competition. Pat balks at being that partner, but Tiffany’s also a great manipulator and plays an emotional trump card. She knows just what’s important to him, and how to dangle it in front of his face. So he’s caught up, and we get a classic mismatched pair of misanthropes who will “improbably” fall in love.
Again, so obvious, so done before. Still, dancing is always interesting to watch, and everybody in this film is basically excellent. Cooper manages to vault right over his usual douchey Cooperness. The buzz cut helps; he doesn’t so closely resemble Hangover guy. There was something else he did, though, that I really enjoyed. I don’t know how to explain it really, except to say that he was a serious guy who was also funny to watch. The character is hyper; he takes things to ridiculous extremes. To a degree, even his trials and tribulations are funny. The movie knows that, Cooper knows that. But Pat takes himself 100% seriously. And Cooper plays that contradiction: a dead serious guy, smack in the middle of a romantic comedy.
You know who else is great? Robert De Niro. There was a time when that didn’t need to be specified, but we all know De Niro’s kind of lowered his standards in the last decade or so. This character he plays, Pat’s dad, is not built from De Niro clichés, he’s not a tough guy. He’s actually quite a sensitive dude. He has OCD, and he is devoted to the concept of good luck charms. He thinks Pat is one of them, and uses that as a way to guilt Pat into spending more time with him (i.e., “The team lost, and you should’ve been here!”). Pat’s negotiations with his family—trying to rebuild those relationships and regain their trust—are as important to the story as the romance, and that gives the story a little extra weight.
Awards Attention: Though it was up for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and, weirdly, Editing, it was never really in the running for any of those. Playbook is an actor’s movie, so that is where bets were laid. Though the movie came away with one just Oscar, for Jennifer Lawrence in her lead role, there were four nominations—Cooper, De Niro, and Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mom had the other three.
Weaver had the least real chance; not only was she up against a powerhouse (Anne Hathaway from Les Mis), but she had a nothing role in this movie. She was nominated a couple years ago for a movie called Animal Kingdom in which she seemed equally underused until this scene at the end where she suddenly delivered this chilling speech that made you realize there was tons more to her character than you had initially thought. I kept waiting for something like that in Playbook, and it did not happen. De Niro, on the other hand, is doing something very special here—a very modulated, fidgety, improbably emotional tough guy. I thought he had a good chance, but it did not work out for him.
Bradley Cooper is, as I wrote above, just great in this movie, but he was up against Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and never had a shot in hell. The best thing he’s going to get out of this is being referred to as “Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper” in movie trailers from here on out, which is not a bad thing for him.
As for Jennifer Lawrence, I watched The Hunger Games again this week, and—she made these two movies in the same year—I feel like her performance in Hunger Games was so much more intense than Playbook. The circumstances of that movie are just naturally more intense—being hunted for your life will do that—but it still seems like a problem. I don’t want to play into any stereotypes about acting—“there has to be tons of emoting in tons of intense situations or it’s not really acting!”—but the role here just seems slight, compared to others she’s done (Winter’s Bone has another great performance of hers, in another much more serious film).
Having said that, there were a couple moments in Playbook that I found impressive. Not the “I must be crazy!” diner freakout they used as her clip at the Oscars, which seemed overdone, nor the “schooling everybody in football stats” scene everyone assumed they would use as her clip at the Oscars, which was more about the writing than anything special in the delivery. But I loved her nearly-hyperventilating anxiety when she blows up at her sister for inviting Nicki to the dance competition, and the broken, longing looks she sometimes gives Pat when he’s ignoring her. And she danced real cute, and we all love her regardless, so congrats on the Oscar, Jennifer.
This movie was in strong contention over at Tomato Nation’s recent bracket tournament for the bleakest and most depressing movies ever. It is a movie that many moviegoers—even those game for foreign films and/or Oscar bait—skipped because of its subject matter. It’s about an elderly couple, Georges and Anne (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), and their love which increasingly becomes painful obligation as health problems begin to plague Anne.
I read a lot of comments by people who specifically said they wouldn’t see any movies where grown-ups have to wear diapers. Well, guess what. There are adult diapers in this movie. It is Hard to Watch, much like the movie Tracy Jordan was in on 30 Rock. Anne loses her dignity in myriad ways that Haneke lays out to be as bracing as he can. It takes something that people so willingly ignore—the fact that our bodies age, deteriorate, and then die—and makes it everything, unignorable. Unless, I guess, you don’t show up in the first place.
The movie opens when both are in good health; they come home from a concert (they were classical musicians, formerly), they banter about bedtime. They are both trim and not badly-dressed and seem like models for fulfilling elderlihood (a word I just made up). Then Anne has the world’s creepiest stroke (Haneke has also directed some thrillers, and here and there it shows—quite effectively) and it all goes to hell.
Actually, they roll with the punches first. She is partially paralyzed to begin, largely immobile all down her left side, but still is able to get around a little bit, generally using her husband as a crutch. He will grab her on her right, arms around her, and almost drag her around in half-circles, and that way she can move. It looks almost like slow-dancing, which is not a coincidence. We see her sitting in bed reading, holding and turning the pages both with her good hand. A former piano student of hers visits, and while he is uncomfortable with her appearance, she waves it away. (Even though the loss of a full hand’s functionality for a pianist is a real tragedy, one that the movie does not forget to illustrate.)
There is even one particularly funny little moment when some medical dudes bring Anne a motorized wheelchair and she tries it out in the vestibule of their apartment. She moves it a few feet forward, a few feet back, whirls it in a slow circle, all while Georges talks to her about something else. It’s the closest thing to freewheeling behavior you really see in the whole movie. They still believe at this point that they will weather this setback; that it will mean a different life for them, but not a worse one.
And it just gets worse and worse from there. A movie about eighty-year-olds with health problems is really only going to end in one way. What this movie wants to make clear, though, is that sometimes it happens slowly, and that makes it harder for everybody involved, especially for people who have previously loved each other as independent, self-possessed adults. Georges takes considerate care of Anne at every second, until he is forced to hire a nurse who can do some things he can’t. All through the movie I kept marveling, “He’s old too!” He must be tired, he must have aches and pains, but he makes everything in their life about taking care of her. He bristles at intimations from his daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) that Anne needs to be put away somewhere.
Trintignant is amazing, by the way. Riva got all the attention because her performance involves so much physicality (paralysis, plus looking less and less like a human as she goes on) but the resolve of Georges—that Anne deserves this commitment from him, even though it’s sapping the life out of him, too, even though her decline fills him with profound sadness—it’s astounding and done almost totally in the way he looks at Anne, or stares into space.
There is a strange moment, a line where Anne tells Georges that he “can be a monster sometimes.” It was in the trailer, which I saw a dozen times before the movie came out. She says it quite matter-of-factly, he doesn’t ask for clarification, they don’t discuss it more. Is she serious? Has he been cruel in the past? We just don’t see any evidence of that in the scenes we do see. There is one moment when he succumbs to frustration and slaps her, but it seems to be the result of intense fear and stress, and not a fundamental meanness inside him. Because of its placement in the trailer, I assumed this movie would be about an older man who has neglected his wife, and who has to step up (or fails to step up) when she becomes ill. But (other than that line) that’s not what we see here. It’s very strange. Maybe it’s just a line to remind the audience not to make assumptions. “We may be here now, but there were fifty or sixty years prior to this, and you don’t know what was going on then.”
Despite the devastating nature of the subject matter, there is beauty to Amour, too, in their beautiful metropolitan apartment if nothing else, but also in little moments when Anne and Georges are just coping as best they can. They do have “amour” for one another, and even though it’s a double-edged sword (that title just drips with irony), there is something admirable in sharing a life with someone literally until death.
Awards Attention: It won Best Foreign Language film, to nobody’s surprise. I think its placement in the Best Picture race (where it lost, of course) was mostly to prove to people that the Academy is cool and not in the pocket of Big Hollywood. It was never going to win that, of course. And I wouldn’t have voted for it for that, either, mostly because it’s such a small story; still, in thinking about what makes a movie a success, we can’t forget that telling a story that’s affecting and honest and deep doesn’t happen without some serious artistry behind the camera.
Haneke lost Best Director to Ang Li, who put tigers in lifeboats, and lost Best Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino. This is probably because no one ever stops speaking dialogue in Tarantino movies, while Amour was about 70% intense silence. I will say that Amour’s non-linear narrative (which begins at the end) was a very effective storytelling choice.
Finally: Riva was nominated for Best Actress. She lost the Oscar to Lawrence, but beat both her and Jessica Chastain for the BAFTA a few weeks earlier. As I said above, the physicality is the real marker of skill in this performance. She moves freely and easily, and then she droops on one side. And then her body becomes more and more maimed, and then her eyes become more and more vacant. She physically becomes a shell of a person. And while you can’t underestimate the effect of makeup here, Riva is really doing something that you need to be an actress with 60 years’ worth of experience to be able to do. (Hiroshima mon Amour, people. That was her in 1959.) Amazing lady, who at 85 must still be fully in control of her body to have pulled off this performance, so she’s already winning at the game of life. (Also, she has a César and something called the “Silver Goddess” from Mexico, and she’s still beautiful, so she’s doing OK all around.)