This is a sweet, deeply affecting film. My quibbles? I’m not totally on board the David O. Russell train. As a director, I feel like he aspires to be Paul Thomas Anderson grungy/dirty/epic (see: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) while riffing on a Robert Altman we’re-so-groovy-with-our-overlapping-improvised-dialogue vibe (see: Nashville, The Player, or my guilty pleasure Popeye). BUT he does consistently wring great performances from his players and has a lovely eye for skewering populist middle American conventions (see: The Fighter) .
I wasn’t nuts about Robert DeNiro or Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s haunted, crackpot parents. They had moments of authenticity, but mostly they seemed like they were well-heeled Yuppies slumming and winking at their hardscrabble Italian/Phildelphian roles. Their early scenes were the worst culprits of goofy look-at-us-make-up-the-dialogue-as-we-go-along bits.
(A sidebar plea: American directors, please, I implore you, just stop this improv junk, along with the twitchy, handheld camera stuff. The only people who can do this are the British…and maybe Australians…and only with Mike Leigh in charge – see: Secrets & Lies).
HOWEVER, what did I like…no, love…about this film? Lawrence and Cooper, especially when he was onscreen with Lawrence. Oh, and I adored always reliable Julia Stiles as Lawrence’s materialistic/tightly-wound sister. She nails the young Gen Y cloying mommy thing with that constant need to remodel/remake/reproduce. Love her!
The plot of the film just sounds ridiculous when you read about it: young man loses it when he catches his wife cheating on him; he is released under the care of his parents, though he still struggles with bipolar disorder; he meets cute with a young widow similarly afflicted; they enter a dance competition and simultaneously bet all his father’s money on a football game with a triumphant, fist-pumping Hollywood outcome for all. End scene.
Only…it’s not exactly like that. What you don’t get from that synopsis is that Lawrence and Cooper zig when they might have zagged. They are broken toys hurt deeply by a world that only knows how to hurt. They are surrounded by friends and family who are just as afflicted (though not conveniently “diagnosed” for their “problems”). Cooper has a line at the end of the film about the world having a million ways to break our hearts.
The film addresses mental illness/health deftly and humanely. We may label people “ill” out of our own fear or a desire to avoid any inconvenience they may cause us…when all of us are struggling with our own demons every day. Perhaps we do it out of resentment: “I can keep my genie in its bottle, so why can’t you?” Who knows. But it is hypocritical and unfair.
Cooper and Lawrence are quiet forces of nature. Blunt instruments with hurricanes of sadness roiling right beneath the surface. Anyone who knows me may not be surprised at this analogy, but they reminded me of abused, neglected strays one brings home to rehabilitate: gun shy, scared, sad, perhaps aggressive but with much stifled love to give.
Make no mistake, Russell is offering pointed commentary on how we deal with mental illness in this country. Yes, people may need “help,” but not pharmaceutical, not pigeonholing. There is a wonderful scene where both characters speak knowingly about the horrors of the various drugs they have had to endure but in a totally cavalier way, like kids comparing comic books or baseball cards they may have collected.
The most powerful statement the film makes is that what truly heals a broken heart/mind are kindness, attention, passion, and understanding. Much humor is derived from the fact that these two characters are brutally, unflaggingly, purely honest. Like children. And what a wonderful way to be.