“I'd rather have someone human and available and raw and open. Don't give me someone cold, or cut off, or someone who considers themselves dignified.”
—Lily Tomlin, The New York Times, Sep. 19, 2004
We live in suburban single-families just around the corner; we walk, run, or ride bikes to get where we’re going, and don’t use cars or even sidewalks (there’s a fuckin’ tons of roads to run in!). The second-hand soundtrack of our lives, overheard from other movies, is overplayed classic rock, usually Zeppelin, but sometimes a drum-heavy instrumental there to underscore abandon. Our clothes express where we’re at in life, not who we are. We come running from out of nowhere like we always have, like the security guard in I Heart Huckabees, tackling Jason Schwartzmann from outside the frame for planting trees in a parking lot. Like immigrants or the crew of a John Ford movie on location, our families are big and only get bigger, eventually encompassing everyone in sight.
We say You’re killing me when something bothers us—because we take everything to heart—and That’s confusing when we don’t understand each other, because characters in scripts always understand one another, and we can get a laugh out of undermining that, not to mention maybe we know something they don’t (We’re not liars like they are). We open up to you and hope you don’t judge us for it. We know the inevitability of human drama.
At home, we all talk at once.
The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday, that’s guaranteed.
We can’t begin to explain that, or the craziness inside ourselves and everybody else, but guess what? The camera’s in the bed of a pickup, driving away as fast as it can; joy is in the streets with our sloppy feelings and the screwed-up faces we make at all the crazy sad shit in our lives. We’re in a David O. Russell movie, of course, and it’s one hot mess of a screwball dramedy.
In Russell’s world, even the camera comes running, swooping in on the human face in a flourish of melodrama. Next to Wes Anderson, Russell has the most expressive camera in comedy, telegraphing his tracking shots (as well as their meaning) with trajectory and almost moronic assurance. If his cinematography is undignified, it’s because so are his characters. For Russell, who owes his career to framing socially inappropriate behavior within Hollywood convention, making a rom-com about bipolar disorder and a loyal, married-to-a-dead-guy slut (Silver Linings Playbook, 2012) comes as naturally as using the hackneyed structure of triumphant boxing biopic to tell the story of a dancing crackhead and his kid brother (The Fighter, 2010).
The Fighter is a pictorial, oral history of Massholes—the definitive comic, if not dramatic, portrait of Greater Boston—while Silver Linings Playbook is a glimpse at Philadelphia through its western suburbs, with Bradley Cooper the homegrown son in place of Mark Wahlberg, and a family of Italian- instead of Irish-Americans. Raised an atheist, now a humanist, Russell flirts with absurdism, flinging his characters into a pointless, chaotic universe before using Hollywood convention to reel them back in, except for in the outright absurdist Huckabees (made while he was going through a divorce), the least conventional of his films, in which characters grapple with the meaning of the universe out loud, vocalizing themes left unspoken in Russell’s other work, with only the loosest of three-act structures to constrain their activity and nothing but existential detectives to come to their rescue.
Russell’s films rise and fall depending on how funny they are; even The Fighter succeeds as comedy more than anything else, starting out as vernacular grotesquerie before eventually shading into drama. Russell builds up to screwball-like crescendi by piling socially inappropriate behavior atop mundane psychological detail atop, in the case of The Fighter, acutely hilarious regional observation. Just as Silver Linings could’ve been called That Face Jacki Weaver Makes, The Fighter could’ve easily been titled A Photo Essay on the Faces of the Seven Actresses Cast to Play the Eklund Sisters (Including But Not Limited to: Pork, Tar, Beaver, Red Dog & Little Alice). When haircut and bone structure establish character, jokes tell themselves.
Typical of Russell’s films and their screwball nature is the scene in The Fighter in which a limo pulls up to a crackhouse and Dicky (Christian Bale) jumps out the back window into a dumpster full of garbage bags to avoid seeing his mother (a recurring gag); comedy is in the Frankenstein-like body language of the crackheads as they perceive danger; the nonchalance with which Dicky jumps from the window; the casual way Micky yells at his brother as Dicky emerges from the trash; the undignified acts of a father pulling his grown son down from a chain-link fence and a son hitting his father (reprised for screwball drama in Silver Linings); and Micky in turn yelling at everyone with further nonchalance. Then there’s those seven Eklund sisters, whose every scene is a comic masterwork of everyone talking all at once…
Favoring hysterical outbursts like some kind of Capra-corn Cassavetes, Russell paints feelings in sfumato, collaborating with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey) to create in Silver Linings an ugly beige beauty from Steadicam shots that emphasize raw emotion over clean cinematography, precise blocking, or perfect match cuts. An actor’s director, who insisted that sets on this film be lit 360 degrees to allow actors the freedom to move around, Russell is nonetheless a coherent stylist. Silver Linings displays a sense of rhythmic visual rhyming throughout—something like the running-in-place dance steps Pat Solitano (Cooper) and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence) pattern after Singin’ in the Rain—with a structure that sways here and there but leans heavily on shot/reverse-shot, on top of which structure Russell shows off two signature moves, or techniques, that make the look of the film really stand out:
- Steadicam swoop-in to facial reaction shot (used multiple times at the dance competition in Silver Linings and once earlier in the film to reveal Pat’s realization about the letter), which depending on usage is sort of his triple axel or triple Salchow.
- Camera-on-the-back-of-a-truck-as-it-speeds-away, which is his “Big Move,” to use Silver Linings terminology.
Deployed only twice so far, towards the beginning of The Fighter and the end of Silver Linings, the Big Move is the most blatant, flagrant tracking shot in all of cinema right now, a record of enchantment designed to elicit one reaction, the one the gal next to me had the last time I saw it: “Oh my god, this movie’s so fucking good.” In Hollywood, happy endings are quotidian, but the characters in Silver Linings go out on a limb to earn theirs, fighting for it the entire time, framed from all sides by a camera—emotional, indecorous, melodramatic—that risks believing in magic.
“I feel like I'm being crushed… I'm, like, suffocating,” says Ronnie (John Ortiz), covering his face with his hand. “You can't be happy all the time.”
“Who told you you can’t be happy?!” asks Pat, as if speaking for the movie.
Sure, this is formula. It’s Hollywood. Russell creates a comic landscape then fills it with melodrama, big deal. But if Pat espouses an empty positivity, responding to the hard knock life with pseudo-intellectual placebos, Silver Linings reflects a more complex vision, realized in the film’s third and final act through the impressionist interplay of expressive camera movement and bodies in motion working in harmony with themes Russell’s been coloring in for years. Sure, plot contrivances abound, and yeah, tertiary characters are there for no reason—but look at the cinema of David O. Russell long enough and you may see a reason: his families are big and only get bigger, expanding with every outburst. Silver Linings, like The Fighter, shows what Huckabees only tells: that interconnection grows from the manure of human trouble.
Like any David O. Russell picture, Silver Linings Playbook is a love letter to human cookie monsters of neuroticism and the dysfunctional families that love them.