Monday, November 26th, 2012

Why Does the 'New Yorker' Hate David O. Russell?

David Denby wrote a mad-crazy review of Silver Linings Playbook in the New Yorker. Thankfully for his dignity, it was behind the paywall, and came after a lengthy review of that weird dead snoozer, Life of Pi (it's an effusive but cautious rave, but he does call Life of Pi "one of the great adventure films"). Here's a taste: "David O. Russell's 'Silver Linings Playbook' is pretty much a miscalculation from beginning to end," and he goes on to call it nothing more than an exercise for actors, that it "feels worked up." This is a point of view at least, if a wrong one, and artificiality is a charge that Russell comes up against constantly. His six released full-length fiction movies are all "artificial," even 2010's commercially palatable The Fighter—which was also his least interesting movie.

But Richard Brody, who is smart and edumacated and interesting, and who has a very good sense of Russell, and who is the movies editor for the New Yorker's Goings On About Town, has big beef with Silver Linings Playbook as well. He also finds it incredibly artificial: "The plot is utterly ridiculous, the characters are created merely to fulfill its requirements, and whatever charm and integrity the movie possesses issues from the actors," pretty much sums up his complaint. Together the two have linked uncomfortable arms with Rex Reed, who wrote: "I have never been able to tolerate the pointless, meat-headed, masturbatory cinema of self-indulgent writer-director Mr. Russell." (OH REX REED!) But while they're all wrong, a basic component of Brody's complaint is just incorrect.

[T]he story challenges the medical “establishment” and the efficacy of medical science in bringing about results: Pat doesn’t take his medication because he doesn’t like how it makes him feel—and because it makes him gain weight, whereas he wants to be svelte and buff in order to win his wife back. His mental health depends (and guess where this is going in the story) on his ability to control his behavior through force of will and the ability to make emotional connections based on empathetic and mature choices (as if mental illness itself might not be an insurmountable obstacle to those connections and choices). The movie will be a hit with those who think that hyperactivity is just a failure of discipline and depression merely a bad attitude (to the tune of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” with its reference to “Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark”).

Without a word about religion in the script, “Silver Linings Playbook” advocates a faith-based view of mental illness and, overall, of emotional redemption.

Brody goes on to claim that the film "presents a personal, faith-and-family-centered approach to holding mental illness in abeyance" and that it "embraces and endorses a populist conservative doctrine."

This is not true about the movie at all.

So Pat and Tiffany meet. Pat has just done eight months of diversion in the nut hut, and gone back to his parents. (Instead of going up to prison for assault, he goes down to the institution for mental health treatment.) Pat and Tiffany initially bond over their various (and extremely common) complaints about medication.

Pat's diagnosis is bipolar. A particular manifestation of bipolar disorder, and of other similar illnesses, is that such people nearly all despise medication. That is part and parcel. It triggers narcissism: "I know what's best for me." It triggers loss and sorrow: "I can't feel anything." (In particular, the mania.) It triggers paranoia: "You're trying to control me." The number one battle in treating bipolar disorder (or perhaps number two, after preventing self-harm) is getting people to take any medication at all, for any period of time.

In the film, Pat has been passing off his meds, spitting them on the floor, and seems to have gone unmedicated entirely in the institution. Like many mental health treatment facilities, this one seems so-so: it probably serves some well and others less well, and isn't prepared to entirely supervise a smart, high-functioning and sneaky bipolar dude. When he gets home, he's manic and off his game. He fantasizes about his relationship with his ex. He's paranoid, believing she's going to receive reports on his behavior from the police and his shrink.

Finally, finally, after a big middle-of-the-night throw-down episode—one for which there are actual consequences, and an emotional response to his behavior—he decides to actually take medication. Yes, his parents are gathered around him in the kitchen as he takes his first pill. But that's because he realized that he'd hurt them—physically, even. He'd finally gotten an appropriately sized response to his own out-of-control behavior. And that's when things begin to improve for him. It has nothing to do with "faith" or "will" or what have you. He just finally gets an insight that 1. something actually is wrong and 2. that he has tried everything except for the prescribed treatment for his condition.

So recasting this bit of plot, or whatever, as a "faith-and-family-centered approach" to mental health treatment, or as essentially "conservative," seems willfully wrong to me. And in fact, I don't think it's actually so untypical of real life.

[AN IMPORTANT SIDEBAR HERE about the "real world" and "mental health": I am not a huge medication advocate! I'm a moderate fan of "taking medication in consultation with a trusted professional to smooth out crisis periods then getting off it at the right moment and of all of us being uniquely chemically who we are," and also a fan of "discuss these things with your community and/or health professional of choice." So you can STOP TYPING THAT ANGRY COMMENT AND/OR EMAIL already, my friend, I thank you respectfully.]

* * *

So what does the New Yorker uniformly have against David O. Russell? Here is a weird thing. Denby wrote actually a fairly persuasive review of I ♥ Huckabees: "'Huckabees' is the real thing—an authentic disaster—but the picture is so odd that it should inspire, in at least a part of the audience, feelings of fervent loyalty." That's true, though it's a magnificent movie, but in the end Denby can't get on board, and he throws up his hands and basically says "roll with it." He panned Three Kings ("At its worst, it’s an irresponsible, infuriating mess"). Anthony Lane dealt with The Fighter, saying it approached corniness and also seemed quite a bit like a very good acting class. That the magazine should so barely appreciate Russell's best-regarded movie seems odd. And previously, the mag kinda dismissed Flirting With Disaster and dissed Spanking the Monkey, both of which are really pretty good movies, if one is a bit too dry and the other a bit too juicy.

There are some things "wrong" with this new film, namely that whatever fun stuff the amazing Jacki Weaver cooked up mostly got cut from the film. This is a funny Russell thing: the men usually do dominate, and that's unfortunate, as the women are all so much better in his movies. (You could give me the five minutes of the gang of sisters from The Fighter and skip all the rest and I'd call it a great movie.) The women were by far the best thing about Huckabees, even if some of them were, let's say, gratuitously screamed at by Russell. (Clooney got it too, on the set of Three Kings.) Jennifer Lawrence is better than anyone in Silver Linings—except maybe Julia Stiles, who is on-screen for maybe 3 minutes, and who is spectacular.

So the only solution for Russell to win the heart of the New Yorker, and to make the best possible movie he can make, is, quite obviously, to set his next film in a real all-lesbian barter-economy separatist community in Australia. It'll be so "stagey" and "artificial" that it'll no longer be possible to complain about the basic fact that "artificial" is his preferred mode and is, in fact, his métier. I can't hardly wait. Also, if he screams at them during filming, they'll rise up and tear him apart, and that wouldn't be so bad either.

22 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#713)

But the important question is, is this a Bradley Cooper movie you can get through without being seized 10 minutes in with the overwhelming urge to punch Bradley Cooper in the face? Because if not I don't think I can do it, no matter how much affection I have (and I have a lot!) for David O.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@jfruh I am the same, but all sources say yes, this movie does the unthinkable.

Dan Packel (#10,421)

@jfruh The scar on the bridge of B-Coop's face in the film suggests that someone already did it for you, if that helps

@jfruh I swear, this Howard Stern interview with Bradley Cooper from a couple of weeks ago will make you a believer (the scar plays a big role):

@jfruh I loath Bradley Cooper as much as the next moviegoer. It only took me 60 minutes to get past my loathing. Much the same as any Tom Cruise performance.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@jfruh It's a bit like Punch Drunk Love (and not in the obvious "crazy love" ways), in that a smart director took an actor with limited range and deployed that range in the best possible way. Brad Cooper's usual brash overconfidence is utilized to great effect in illustrating mania.

KeithTalent (#2,014)

The Life of Pi review was odd, essentially he said it has its moments but all the god stuff sucks.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Of all the filmmakers to razz for artifice.

joshc (#442)

I really liked Silver Linings Playbook, but I don't know how anyone could view the mental illness as portrayed in this movie as any sort of charming.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@joshc Right? It's not a fuckin Zach Galifianakis film

Goto Tengo@facebook (#232,749)

Just to be clear, Slant magazine didn't like it either – which brought out a bunch of cries from the wise commentariat that Slant should have its reviews conform more with the metacritic average. I think Mr. Sicha's arguments in favor of the movie are far more in-depth and persuasive than that of the Slant comments (this praise may come off as faint, but it's not intended to be) – and I do hope he's right on this one, because I'm huge fan of Russell's, grateful that he's gotten a comeback, and it would be great if he's now able to complete his James Caan-Jessica Biel comedy about Washington D.C.; I would look forward to a Mickey Rourke-Liza Minelli collaboration directed by Russell.

His approach all depends on hitting certain some off-beat notes subtly – in premise, Spanking the Monkey, "a comedy about incest!" – sounds absolutely terrible, dealing with a way too serious subject in a lighthearted way, making you expect a movie that's either amoral or sensationalist, when it's actually a very good, well-observed film, that rightfully started Russell on to bigger things.

davidwatts (#72)

I have loved virtually all of Russell's films, but I am worried about this one. It looks Sentimental. Am I wrong about this?

joshc (#442)

@davidwatts sentimentality really isn't a rare commodity in David O. Russell's films, is it?

skahammer (#587)

@davidwatts The movie is sentimental — but if this helps, the sentiment stays well within the narrow, offbeat, non-telegraphed range that you might call "David-O-Russellian."

Danzig! (#5,318)

@joshc there is sentiment, though it's hard to avoid being a love story and all. To the extent that Sentimentality entails unearned feeling, I don't think SLP is. While the ending dance competition is more or less a cliche, all the characters are well-sketched and everything makes sense. There aren't any vapid "FEEL EMOTION NOW" buttons being pressed.

purefog (#999)

And when Russell DOES that next film you recommend for him, he'll already have Jacki Weaver on board! Win-win!

Matthew Lawrence (#3,423)

Just for clarification, is Flirting With Disaster the dry one or the juicy one? (I ask because I think it's the best one, though I haven't seen the new one yet.)

skahammer (#587)

Rex Reed. Has that guy ever composed a single review worth re-reading? Honestly asking here: In my mind, I've never completely separated Reed from must-ignores like Michael Medved.

dawedore (#239,701)

i like for ever

Danzig! (#5,318)

Re: the film, I will say that like Choira I've been annoyed by the mixed / negative reviews of this film commonly employing wrongheaded notions about mental illness. In large part I think it's a function of Hollywood's usual MO of portraying stories about illness and disability (difference in general, really) as tragedy on the scale of bittersweet to punishing. Scott Tobias' review in the AV Club outright docks the film points because the notion of bipolar people engaging in long-term stable relationships is something he finds preposterous.

I really, really liked SLP in large part because it tells a less morose story about people with mental illness without sugar-coating the experience of it or how destructive it can be for other people. The main characters are capricious and do terrible things with little or no perspective on how they disappoint and hurt the people they love, but they aren't portrayed as monsters or as fundamentally broken. They have human wants / needs / fears but are incapable on some level of dealing with them normally. Likewise, the families and friends of the ill people are often harried and frustrated but they're more worried than angry, and the love and support they show never wavers over the course of the film (not that all support systems are like that, but it's good to see nonetheless). Even the high-strung sister of the Jennifer Lawrence character, even the cop assigned to enforce a restraining order placed on the Bradley Cooper character, deal with the characters as ill people rather than the menaces they would be in any other story like this.

It's a weird thing to see, I guess because so many films about mental problems (most of which are invariably about severe schizophrenia or autism) push how unrelatable / alien / scary they are. I was honestly struck by how at no point during the film do any of the main character's family or friends blame him for his condition, or wish for him to be different. You know that if this were an Apatow joint, the scene in which Lawrence leaves the dinner that her sister just cooked for her would have included vocal resentment and anger on the part of the sister, rather than the sad resignation and hurt that we do get. Jacki Weaver's character would have snapped and castigated both her husband and son for their unhealthy obsessions. The ways that the characters' illnesses are destructive isn't the central focus of the drama, it's the ways in which those characters strive to become happier and more functional. So… I, uh, liked it is what I'm saying. I thought it was really honest and heartfelt and filled with well-drawn characters. You should probably go see it if you've got time.

skahammer (#587)

@Danzig! Christ, this is good. You're right on. Any chance the Misfits helped you write this?

Danzig! (#5,318)

@skahammer Jerry Only and I aren't on speaking terms anymore, sorry to say. I've got my own namesake band now!

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