Saturday, January 12, 2013

Silver Linings, Romance, and Destruction

It was a weekend of romance and destruction—cinematic, operatic, theatrical.

Silver Linings Playbook is a vigorous, in-your-face story that’s billed as a comedy though the first half is filled with shouting, madcap jogging, generational conflict, and the abrupt rearrangement of office furniture. Bradley Cooper has “anger issues” stemming from his recent divorce, and eight months in a mental institute don’t seem to have helped him much. He’s trying to readjust to the outside world without meds, with the help of his mother. He’s earnest and likable  but has difficulty with restraining orders, always says the first thing that comes into his head, and we just wish he’d calm down.

He father (Robert DeNiro) doesn’t help much, always simmering with recriminations and disappointment. Having lost his job and pension, he’s become a bookie; he considers Bradley to be a good luck charm, and wants him to sit calmly nearby and watch the Philadelphia Eagles games so he can make some money. Father-and-son time, he calls it.

The plot thickens when Bradley meets his best friend’s wife’s sister, played with ferocious intensity by Jennifer Lawrence. Her husband, a cop, has died recently and she’s got a few screws loose herself. Her perchance for tactlessness and verbal abuse is, if anything, greater than Bradley’s. Sparks begin to fly as the two banter back and forth about the various anti-depressants they no longer take. The tale is full of unexpected turns and unsettling revelations, but we warm to it eventually, as the characters warm to each other. Long before the end, we’re caught in the grip of genuine emotion in the best Hollywood tradition. Howard Hawks would have approved.

By way of contrast, Anna Karenina is a lavish and highly stylized production. A good part of it takes place within the confines of a theater, a sort of Tolstoy meets Brecht effect. Some viewers have been disappointed by the approach, but it seems to me the director, Joe Wright,  has removed many of the boring parts of the interminable novel and thereby focused our attention full-square on its psycho-dynamics. Kiera Knightley is a smashing Anna, simultaneously naïve and confused and devilish and empassioned, and Jude Law gives us an icy, high-minded Karenin that we can sympathize with to some slight degree. It’s the kind of acting that seldom wins prizes but can sometimes hold a plot together. On the other hand, Vronsky (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), struck me slightly foppish and ridiculous--what a horrible mustache! 

Wright has wisely divided our attention between Anna’s story and that of her brother, a shallow, good-natured philanderer, and a family friend named Kitty, (played by the stunningly wholesome Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) who suffers heartbreak when Vronsky throws her over for Anna. The effect of this approach is to distance us slightly from Anna’s tormented relationships—everyone knows how they turn out anyway—to create a vision where tragedy takes a back seat to cosmic balance.


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