September 21, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook: A romantic comedy gem

As we enter Oscar season — as the best films of the year fill theaters — the Reel Dad checks out the nutritional value of the nominees. This week’s pick is the romantic comedy from writer/director David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook, nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Throughout our lives, we sometimes learn to love the people we love in spite of who they are as much as because of who they are. And the more time we share, the more we realize how essential patience, tolerance and humor can be to a successful relationship. It isn’t always enough to love someone; sometimes we have to learn how to live with their realities, too.

The fabulous Silver Linings Playbook dares to examine these issues as it tosses aside our conventional expectations for a romantic comedy. While most entries in this genre follow a typical script (boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and boy tries to get the girl back before the credits roll) Silver Linings refuses to follow the menu. Its romantic hero is fresh from the mental institution with challenges involving complex medications, overbearing parents and unpredictable tantrums. And the girl he wants is, actually, the ex-wife who doesn’t want anything to do with him. As he struggles to find a new life he meets someone who, for better or worse, is no better or worse than he, a woman so frightened by her shadow that she can only create realities she can manage. Together they try to bring order to their lives as they realize emotions can be impossible to organize.

David O. Russell, the prolific creator of Flirting With Disaster and I (Heart) Huckabees, uses his unique voice to articulate the dynamics of relationships in absurd moments and outrageous people we easily recognize. While we may not actually fill our lives with such extreme situations, we observe enough surprising moments to recognize the symptoms. As with the best of his films, Russell refuses to apologize for the weaknesses of any character; he might argue that what we consider a flaw is, actually, ultimate strength. Russell simply wants us to accept who these people are and, through them, become more willing to view our own actual worlds.

Propelling the film are superlative performances from a stellar cast. This is only the 14th time in Academy Award history when one film is nominated in all four acting categories. For those of us who think of Bradley Cooper as a man suffering a hangover, his performance as the endlessly hopeful romantic is a break-through; from his first moments on screen he brings a compelling urgency to every conversation and situation. Jennifer Lawrence reveals what a fascinating comedienne she can be as she discovers every natural bit of humor in the most tragic and absurd moments. Robert De Niro, after years of faking his way through Fokker movies, reminds us how powerful he can be as the troubled father and Jacki Weaver, so memorable in the Oscar-nominated Animal Kingdom, is again unforgettable as the sympathetic mother.

At Oscar time, as this “little movie that can” battles with the big movies that do, consider the moments on screen that create true surprise. No matter where you are as you enter the theater, Silver Linings Playbook welcomes you to its inviting world of complex people who simply want the world to slow down. You may recognize a few of them.

Film Nutritional Value

Silver Linings Playbook

* Content: High. Any time we can spend an evening with such unique people is always enjoyable and memorable.

* Entertainment: High. Writer/director David O. Russell is sassy enough never to let us know what he wants us to think no matter the movie moment.

* Message: High. As he reinvents the romantic comedy, Russell makes us think about as he winds his way through exaggerated forms of reality.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with your older children about the realities of relationships is worthwhile.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children will have a lot to talk about even if the situations on screen appear distant from day-to-day life.

(Silver Linings Playbook is rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. The film runs 122 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets

This Week’s Movie Menu

What’s on your family’s movie menu this week? Choosing what films to offer is a lot like planning what meals to serve: You want to savor something you will enjoy at the same time you nourish the mind, heart and body. These nutritional movies are available this week on cable for you and your family.

No matter how cold the outside may be, movies available this week certainly can warm things up. Consider these options as you look forward to the weekend.

As parents, we want to give our children the benefit of the doubt, no matter the truth we must confront. At challenging moments, we want to believe that the lessons we have taught and the experience we have shared will inspire our children to use good judgment. And when they face temptation, we hope they will understand the consequences of the choices they make. 

We aren’t sure, as Carnage opens, what actually happened one afternoon in a park among a group of older children. All we know, as one parent describes to another, is one child seriously injured another, although the reason is unclear. The physical confrontation between these children leads to an emotional debate among the four parents with none of them wanting to admit his or her child could be to blame.

Based on the Tony-winning play God of Carnage, the film version of a shorter title explores an extended conversation between these parents. At first, both sets are civil and socially courteous, as they share coffee and cake in the New York City home of two of the parents. Not surprisingly, however, as the discussion turns to details, the parents naturally take the sides of their children; after all, both boys were well raised and know what is right and what is not. 

Only when the parents begin to confront the truths about themselves, and their relationships, do they begin to acknowledge what may have happened between the boys. Truth can be difficult to swallow, especially in the superficial exchanges of parents in denial. This worthwhile film airs on Sunday, at 1 pm, on Starz.

Some times we need to be reminded how lucky we are. We may be fortunate enough to have food on the table every day and a warm bed to sleep in. But the comforts we may experience can separate us from the real issues others face. Only when we are openly curious about how others live can we learn how they think.

The Help — on Showtime 2 at 7 pm Friday — recreates a time when the realities of the day dictated, in many places in the United States, how people of different races must serve others in an American dream that becomes more of a sentence than an opportunity. This film takes us inside the lives of women who only know one way to feed their families. All the society will enable them to do is to serve others without offering equal access to ordinary facilities and services. But they don’t give up. Holding them together is a belief that strong people can endure; their strength reminds us that quite resolve may be difficult to overcome.

Such a framework gives writer/director Tate Taylor the foundation to ramble from character to character in a casual approach that works because Taylor is clever enough to surprise at many turns. The white women, despite their perfection in looks, are as human as the young mothers of any generation; the black women, despite their complex lives, consistently bring a humanity and humor to each chance to touch their friends and employers. The Help reminds us that people, not laws, determine fairness and opportunity. And when people are frightened, they look for any way, no matter how unfair, to protect themselves.

Serving nutritious movies can be as easy as turning on the television. And be sure, as you watch together, to share what you observe, question and consider. Watching movies together can prompt valuable family discussions.