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.]

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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.