Silver Linings Playbook
BOY CULTURE REVIEW: **** out of ****
After the early promise of Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996), writer/director David O. Russell stumbled disastrously with the unwatchable I Heart Huckabees (2004). Since then, he seems to have found his groove as an innovative storyteller within a loosely mainstream framework, knocking it out of the park with the compelling The Fighter (2010) and one of this year's absolute best, Silver Linings Playbook.
Bradley Cooper is Oscar-worthy as "Pat," a wayward son recently released from an asylum after becoming obsessed and violent over his cheating wife (a scarce Brea Bee). Sprung from the loony bin, he's not a hit around his hometown, not even with his parents (equally OCD dad Robert DeNiro and daffy mom Jacki Weaver), with whom he has to live. He just can't seem to let his marriage go, nor does he seem fully cognizant of the bizarre mood swings and at inappropriate behavior he continues to exhibit, whether it be compulsive runs, blunt social interactions or worse.
When his pal "Ronnie" (a hilariously understated John Ortiz) and his handful of a wife "Veronica" (Julia Stiles, who could easily have been the female lead a few years ago) introduce Pat to Veronica's equally mentally unstable sister "Tiffany" (Jennifer Lawrence), it's a match made in dysfunctional heaven—they discuss meds from the get-go and begin a bizarre, touching, hilariously awkward courtship that culminates with Pat's blackmailed participation in a local dance competition.
As wonderfully shaded as Cooper is—this is the best he's ever been in a movie, in a role that seems perfectly crafted for him—Lawrence is at least as impressive, if only because yet again she disappears into a part. This time, she plays Tiffany as flashing between vulnerable and violently resentful, and she's hardly recognizable doing so.
It takes an auteur like Russell to go so far out on a limb that even Shirely MacLaine would urge caution, and to remind us that not every movie needs to be neat and tidy and a slight reworking of every movie we've seen before it. One of the year's best.
BOY CULTURE REVIEW: ***1/2 out of ****
As much as I liked Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985), it always did have that slightly Disney feel to it. I feared the same from Lincoln, not only for its casting of the very modern-looking (and too old!) Sally Field as "Mary Todd Lincoln", but for the gimmicky, Disneyland's Hall of Presidents-esque clips I'd seen of Daniel Day-Lewis as our sixteenth president.
When I first started watching the film, I thought my fears had been justified—it opens with a really ridiculously mythological-feeling scene showing "Lincoln" (Day-Lewis) sitting with some Union soldiers, two white and two black, and proceeds to hammer us over the head with the idea that Lincoln was a uniter of the races.
But aside from that misstep, the rest of the film was an impressive and engrossing piece of work. It's more of an artfully done historical document than a history-infused piece of art in that it focuses so heavily on the machinations (some unsavory) Honest Abe had to resort to in order to get slavery abolished on the federal level while simultaneously winning the Civil War, but no matter—a good movie is a good movie.
And speaking of good, Sally Field turns out to be the best thing about Lincoln, giving a starkly empathetic performance as the first lady who's lost one son and is on the verge of insanity over the thought of losing another (Joseph Gordon Leavitt). Her performance is beautifully modulated, her face expressive and her true age never visually an issue (at the time of filming, she was more than 20 years older than Mary Todd Lincoln was in the period during which the film is set; Day-Lewis is almost exactly the age Lincoln was). If she were to best Anne Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress, it couldn't be said she didn't deserve it.
The reason Field stands out is that she's one of the few actors given enough room to emote and to craft a character for more than highly dramatic (Gloria Reuben's stoic slave) or highly comical purposes. Day-Lewis is superb as Lincoln, but he's still so mired in his excellent costume and makeup and in camera trickery/lighting used to create and maintain his uncanny likeness to the man that his performance still felt more superficial than it might have been had those considerations been cast aside.
In a memorable supporting role, Tommy Lee Jones is outstanding as "Thaddeus Stevens," Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committe and a radical forced to betray the purity of his beliefs in order to receive the biggest, broadest realization of his dream of racial equality. The fireworks between him Field in one scene are a hoot, and immediately call to mind former First Lady Hillary Clinton's battles with Republicans dead set against her husband.
In fact, the film plays as the thinly veiled story of Barack Obama—a great orator and war-time president re-elected to office in spite of hyperbolic opposition by the other party, the art of political maneuvering vs. the heart of being true to one's principles. One major difference is which side is which; the modern Republican party is quick to claim Lincoln as its own, but would Lincoln return the favor were he alive today? Hardly.
There are almost too many familiar faces for Lincoln to ever feel like less than a Hollywood epic (Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, John Hawkes, Jackie Early Haley, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lukas Haas, a magnetic Lee Pace and a grotesquely funny James Spader), but it's still an engrossing and exhaustively detailed, serious biopic of one of the United States's most important figures. Lincoln may last a hair longer than the actual Civil War did, but it's a pleasure of a history lesson.