Last week I watched Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I know this film is going to get lumped in with other movies about “insufferable quirky white people having emotional problems,” but it honestly blew me away. Or more accurately, knocked me down flat. The plot is simple: Michelle Williams is Margot, a wayward freelance writer married to cookbook author Lou (Seth Rogen) in Toronto. She meets a dreamy artist (Luke Kirby, from Slings and Arrows!) and her already shaky marriage starts to crumble. Rather than showing us a torrid, sexy affair, Polley instead focuses on the relationship between Margot and Lou. By giving us the sweet, day-to-day moments in their quiet life together, Polley destabilizes the notion that the grass is always greener. I thought Williams was fantastic. Even though her character veers into iffy Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, Williams finds Margot’s shades and nuances, portraying an emotionally disturbed woman who can’t find stable ground. I also loved Rogen as Lou, and Sarah Silverman as his sister. I was already in a melancholy mood when I watched Take This Waltz, and it completely devastated me. Sometimes I like that in a movie, though.
By the way, the clip I posted above is a great visual metaphor for one of the film’s main themes: it’s a great ride while it lasts. It’s also just one of the best movie scenes from this past year. Polley’s imagery can be heavy handed, but it’s effective.
Take This Waltz has interesting parallels to Silver Linings Playbook, which I saw on Sunday. Silver Linings also features emotionally unstable middle class white people with marital problems, but it feels much more like a conventional Hollywood romantic/screwball comedy. While Polley takes an impressionistic approach towards mental illness, David O. Russell’s film is an overt examination of characters grappling with mood disorders and grief.
In many ways, Silver Linings Playbook is a blatantly manipulative, formulaic rom-com/dramedy. I could see the plot signposts from miles away, from the sparring duo who are expected to fall in love, to the lies that are designed to backfire, to the artificially raised stakes. The movie also irritatingly uses Chris Tucker as the Token Black Friend who literally teaches whitest white guy Pat (Bradley Cooper) to dance with more “soul.” At one point, an Indo-American character says “cocksucker,” and the joke is that the word “cocksucker” sounds funny in an Indian accent. Russell uses the excuse that the two leads are training for a dance competition to repeatedly show us close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence’s ass. The mental illness of the characters is exploited as a plot device to achieve the final goal of this genre: the blissful union of the central heterosexual couple. All of these things greatly annoyed me as I watched the movie. And yet, god dammit, I walked out of the theatre in a fantastic mood. But this also made me really uncomfortable, because of the way Russell abandons his unflinching, honest examination of Pat and Tiffany in favour of a feel-good ending. Pat is basically a stalker with violent tendencies, and Tiffany—who’s also kind of a stalker—is enabling him. It’s creepy and weird, but that tension drives their relationship, and the way it gets glossed over in the end didn’t sit right with me.
Even though so much of Silver Linings Playbook is so wrong, the cast rescues it. A lot of things in this movie don’t make sense, but it’s like the whole cast believed in the movie so hard that they willed it to cohere. Cooper nails his character’s inappropriate, delusional, and fragile optimism. He’s trying so hard to keep it together, but he’s a complete mess, and as a result, incredibly vulnerable. Jennifer Lawrence is hilariously off the rails, yet ferociously determined—like someone who’s completely committed to what they’ve learned in therapy. Robert De Niro plays Pat’s dad, who channels his OCD through his obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. The idea of spectator sports as both a therapeutic outlet and an enabler of mental illness is something I’ve started to explore in my own fiction writing (which I hope to keep doing), and I think De Niro/Russell are spot on here. And really, that’s the other thing that worked for me in this movie: they got the details right. I feel like the romantic comedy framework was artificially imposed on an otherwise compelling, relatable, and funny portrait of a family dealing with various manifestations of mental illness. Side note: Julia Stiles (who was great) as Jennifer Lawrence’s sister was genius casting. They’re basically identical.
I’m also just going to admit here that I’ve had a crush on Bradley Cooper since his Alias days. Before you scoff (okay, you can scoff), hear me out. The Hangover is the worst movie I’ve ever seen (okay—half-movie, because I had to turn it off). Because of that stupid franchise, Cooper has a sleazy douchebag image. On the other hand, since he doesn’t have an outsize media persona, he’s also regarded as boring melba toast. But in every interview I’ve seen (example), he seems thoughtful, intelligent, reasonably well-adjusted, and like a generally good guy—which brings up the question of why he would participate in something as atrocious as The Hangover.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence is a media darling because she’s young, phenomenally talented, and viewed as refreshingly candid. But some of things she’s been saying lately on talk shows etc. have really made me cringe. From reading some posts on Tumblr, it seems some fans have essentially boycotted Lawrence because of her comments (Google will bring you up to speed). I’m not going to get into the details of her comments, but while I appreciate her frankness, some of her comments seem, at best, narrow-minded. I always struggle with this stuff, because I do think it’s possible to enjoy an actor’s work, even if you think they’re a complete tool as a celebrity. Love the art, hate the artist, and all that. It seems to me that the problem is not so much actors who say stupid/offensive/privilege blind/phobic things, but the whole culture of celebrity worship that puts a disproportionate amount of attention on the public personas of actors. I realize that it’s all part of the pop culture package, but it does get irritating. I absolutely think it’s important to call out famous people for making comments that perpetuate oppressive discourses, I just don’t know where to draw the line in terms of my own consumption of culture. Is it important to know all of an actor/writer/director’s political and social views before going to see a film? Does it/should it inform your view of their work? I guess it really depends on the case.