When the recently-released-from-the-looney-bin Pat (Bradley Cooper) first meets the merely “unstable” Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), they assess one other the way a couple of big-game animals might. Inappropriate things spew uncontrollably from their mouths. They look one another up and down as crazy mixed emotions wash transparently over their faces. One suspects that their killing one another or having terrifically athletic sex are equally likely outcomes — and as we start to root for the latter, it’s primarily because the former makes it all the more interesting.

When we saw Silver Linings Playbook last night with pre-Thanksgiving crowds, the audience roared throughout, and so did we. It’s most similar to the writer-director David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster (1996), which showed how much he knows how to make a screwball comedy in which things escalate and take unexpected turns.

Between his tight scripts, colorful characters, dream casting, and some drop-dead brilliant editing, Russell knows how to take you down a weird and very funny road. And I reluctantly admit that he gets a stellar, manic performance out of Bradley Cooper, whose charms I generally fail to miss. Cooper’s big blue eyes here convey not sexiness but clueless self-delusion and a singular lack of control that constitute, surely, the best acting he’s ever done. (I also suspect that being in such good acting company raised the bar. But let’s not be small.)

Pat has been institutionalized for something they refer to euphemistically as “the incident” — brutally beating the man sleeping with his wife — and during his months inside, he has absorbed only selectively the physicians’ advice. Namely, he has hitched his star to a vague pile of wishful thinking about silver linings and can-do optimism, while ignoring everything else. He is so myopically determined to win back his estranged wife, who has placed a restraining order on him, that he’s obsessed with slimming down and making himself into exactly the man she wants him to be. Moreover, he’s dead set on doing it all without taking the meds that dumb him down. When the shrink advises him to have a strategy for the possibility that his wife doesn’t want him back, he converts this back into his single-minded strategy for making himself marriage-ready.

A pause is in order. Yes, this is a film about a dangerously self-deluded, mentally ill individual who believes he can get along fine without his meds so long as he exercises and keeps looking for silver linings. Make up your own mind about whether you’re willing to take that as a given and let that guy be your protagonist. The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody was not willing.

To be honest, I was willing — especially as it’s in aid of a really good screwball comedy. The key to this film is that Pat’s refusal of medication in favor of fantasy is a perfect metaphor for how this film will function in your life, perched as it is to arrive in theaters just in time for Thanksgiving. Persist in your delusions and have a little faith, it whispers, for perhaps things will come out okay in the end. As willing as I am to enjoy comedies about the insane, I also noticed those times in this film when I had to swallow my disbelief. Let’s just say that Russell will surely be hearing howls from the ranks of those who actually treat and/or have to live with bipolar and mood swing disorders — and yet I kind of loved it anyway.

Pat isn’t the only one given to magical thinking. His mother (the magnificent Australian actor Jacki Weaver, who’s not given nearly enough here, and who chilled me to the bone in Animal Kingdom) believes that one can smooth everything over with the right foods — “crabby snacks and homemades,” terms only familiar to those with intimate experience with the Philadelphia suburbs. Even worse is his father (Robert De Niro), an Eagles fan so obsessed that 1) he has been banned from the stadium for life for fighting and 2) he believes that Eagles wins can be ensured so long as he faithfully enacts a bevy of  superstitious gestures, from arranging the TV remotes in a particular way to holding an Eagles handkerchief, expectantly, in one hand while unblinkingly gazing at the screen.

I mean, in retrospect, is it any wonder Pat has his issues?

In someone else’s hands, this scenario would make me cringe — but with actors as stellar as these, what can I say? It works. But things get ratcheted way up when Pat shows up for dinner with his friends Ronnie (John Ortiz in a really great small role) and Veronica/”Ronnie” (Julia Stiles, I love you) to find that they’ve invited her sister Tiffany, a young widow with a bit of a reputation from her pre-marriage days.

Until now, Pat has appeared as determined as he is deluded. But compared with Tiffany, he’s a lightweight re: determination. Her mere presence throws a goodly portion of his myopia out the window. Nor is she afraid to put herself in his way and keep herself within his line of sight, and keep confounding Pat’s attempts to label her. She may be unstable, but she’s far smarter and less deluded than he is, and in him she has recognized a common soul.

In Tiffany, Jennifer Lawrence has the hardest role in this film. Whereas Cooper gets to go batshit without going quite so far as Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys (1995), Lawrence has to persuade us that she’s crazy enough to find Cooper’s character appealing without letting us rack it up to mere nymphomania or view her as comparable to the utterly incomprehensible Emily Watson character in Punch Drunk Love (2002), who inexplicably set her hat for Adam Sandler (argh; that one still kills me). This is hard, especially because Tiffany’s pursuit of Pat requires that she smack him around a bit — and I don’t just mean figuratively — to knock him out of that crazy singlemindedness. 

Now, I‘ve been raving about Jennifer Lawrence for years now, but let me say how happy I am that she opted for this comedy. She has a string of very serious roles as ass-kickers — and can we say the same about any other woman in the history of film? — so her career will only improve by showing that her highly physical, coiled presence onscreen has huge comic potential as well. Her character isn’t used for levity or knee-slapping jokes; rather, she appears to rivet your attention, grab you by the ears, and focus your attention on a viable road back to reality.

I liked every minute of this film, even when I wasn’t yet convinced by Cooper and when, toward the end, things move crazily toward improbable resolutions. And I can imagine Silver Linings Playbook becoming a part of my own family’s routine of re-watching goofy comedies during the holiday season. Because in the end, screwball is its own medicine. In offering a modern take on a classic Hollywood genre, this film makes self-medication both a theme and a prescription.

 

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Some terse capsule reviews:

Moneyball. Middle-aged white guy figures out how to make a better baseball team with no money and, in the process, discovers his inner nobility. Token female: his daughter, who sings a nice song to him.

Win Win. Middle-aged white guy and his (similar) friends place all their hopes for the future on the shoulders of a 15-yr-old high school wrestling prodigy. In the process he discovers his inner menschdom. Token female: sassy, utterly one-dimensional wife (played by the radically under-used Amy Ryan).

Attack the Block. (Fooled you re: race!) Working-class gang of black kids discover their inner heroism by fighting aliens who’ve taken over their housing estate. Token female: kindly white nurse lady who sews them up.

…and that’s just what I’ve seen in the last week. Could I be any more bored? And these are — by any measure — good films. Directors as good as Bennett Miller, Joe Cornish, and Tom McCarthy can probably be bothered to mix it up on the tedium/dudeliness scale if the rest of us emit very loud yawns at them. One, two, three: YAWN.

Do you remember how it felt as a child to misbehave — to behave so badly that you wondered if your soul had turned permanently bad? For me it was sometime around age 11. I became a horrible person, and I couldn’t stop being that person. I was mean to my sister on a new level, outdoing my previous triumphs at cruelty. Worse, I could not stand my mother. We entered a short period in which I was unbearable to her in a way that I still cannot quite understand, intellectually or otherwise.

If I had been Terrence Malick and had grown up in 1950s Waco, Texas, I’m quite certain I would have understood this part of my life through a biblical framework. How could you not? The bible is full of tales of fathers and rebellious sons, brothers who battle one another — and distinctions between those who are chosen and those who are fallen. Good and evil; choices; fateful acts. In that context would I have seen myself as evil? Would I have asked whether one be saved from evil, or regain grace? Instead, I grew up female, later in history, and without religion. Thus I wonder, are these questions of Malick’s, so beautifully captured in The Tree of Life, not just Christian but male ways of seeing the world?

I loved, loved The Tree of Life — and because none of you needs yet another critical assessment of the film as a whole, let me don my gender hat instead. I do so in part because Malick’s work always struck me as painfully, extraordinarily sensitive to women and the strange, dark, inexpressible relations between women and men. Even just thinking of the voiceovers by Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973) and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven (1978) breaks my heart. Tree of Life seems different, male. This is the most amazing film about childhood I’ve ever seen; but it seems to me not a universal story but one about boys.

This film is deeply, profoundly concerned with manliness and patriarchs. “There are two ways through life,” his mother (Jessica Chastain) tells Jack (Hunter McCracken), “the way of nature, and the way of grace.” So close to grace that she’s nearly angelic, she infuses her young son with close attention to the wonder of nature and protects him from the world’s terrors. In one scene she dances with a monarch butterfly, which lands on her hand; in another short clip, she spirits her son away from the disturbing sight of a man having a seizure on their front lawn. Yet ultimately her way of grace can’t protect them from the husband/father (Brad Pitt) whose dissatisfied, striving character makes the “way of nature” so impossible to ignore, and so interchangeable with “feet of clay.” Surrounded by brothers and those neighborhood boys who run in packs, Jack is utterly focused on his father’s quickly changing moods, on the project of being male.

Pitt’s jaw juts out just a little bit more than usual in this role — it’s so subtle, so evocative of the resentment and cussedness always simmering below his steely surface. (This is the best acting I’ve ever seen from Pitt; it’s crazy good, and he’s absolutely found his match in the exceptional Hunter McCracken as the young Jack.) He can be such a loving father, but the love is overshadowed by terrifying moments in which he educates his sons in manliness. “Hit me!” he says to his sons when he tries to teach them how to box, simultaneously glaring and smacking his own jaw to indicate where to aim. In another, rare confessional moment he admits his mistakes to Jack: “Don’t do what I did.” He rules the dinner table with an iron fist; it’s tricky even to know how to pass the mashed potatoes, so Jack watches his father closely. Everything about his father’s physical presence — those heavy glasses that serve as a mask, the military-trim crew cut, the beefy hand with which he grabs his son by the neck in an expression of simultaneous affection and control — bespeaks a man constantly wrestling with himself. Kartina Richardson puts it most succinctly: the film shows that “to be white and male is not only to be in a prison, but to be the prison itself,” over at her elegant blog, Mirror.

Malick spins outward from this personal story — especially the tale of the older Jack (Sean Penn) still disturbed by the death of his brother at age 19, a moment we only see via a telegram arriving at his aged parents’ house — to the biggest questions we have. In breathy voiceovers, we hear Jack at various ages asking, “Where are you?” “Why am I here?”, that universal set of questions about existence we keep asking over and over. Is he asking God these questions? Is he asking his dead brother? “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will,” the younger Jack whispers to us. But it’s really Father, isn’t it? And beyond that, isn’t Malick really wrestling with a Christian god?

Thus, as much as I loved, loved, loved the film, I ultimately found it oddly disconcerting that for him, the universal questions have that Christian overlay with its oppressive, problematic manliness. As important as my father is to me and was to my childhood, his role was so non-patriarchal that I feel all my own hard questions were inflected by different problematics than Malick’s. I knew when I walked into the theater that Malick infused his story with some of those piercing, unanswerable questions; but when I walked out I felt a little bit farther away from my own questions, those which troubled me so deeply and which still occasionally wake me at 3 a.m.

The Tree of Life seems ultimately to tell a story of a particular kind of man looking backward. But whether or not it portrays something universal, it produces a sense of wonder in the viewer — by means of those amazing shots of nature, astronomy, bubbling volcanic magma, mysterious fires — such that I spent all afternoon today hiking in those beautiful rare wild parts of New Jersey with all five senses heightened. Sometimes the beauty of a bird flying, light shining through a canyon, or a shot underwater of waves crashing up above is enough to humble you to the core, to break your heart at the passage of time.

Oh, the back and forth between the divine and the specific. Most of all, the scene that stays with me is that of the boys racing out to greet the DDT truck that wandered the streets in the 1950s to eliminate mosquitoes with a delicious cloud of fog. My mother tells an identical story from a different 1950s childhood (indeed, she and Malick are nearly the same age). Somehow the specificity of this scene creates the same delight as the waves and canyons and cathedrals. It’s in that cloud of whispered questions, lost innocence, half-remembered moments, and that fog of shots that you lose yourself. All of it, including the autobiographical parts, seem to show the world from a child’s height, as the camera looks up at Jack’s parents or at the dome of a beautiful building: spectacular. This film may be the story only of one boy’s life, his own patriarchal Christian questions, but you won’t leave the theater quite the same.