At its start, “Playbook” comes across as refreshingly frank. It’s essentially a film about some really messed up people going through exceptionally difficult times in their lives and having little success at first coping with those problems, especially when they have a mental illness crippling their ability to move on and heal. Mental illness is something few films seem interested in tackling beyond using it as an easy plot device or perhaps even a twist ending.
When was the last time you saw a movie, any movie, where the main characters (not a supporting character) were forced to deal with mental illness and the film treated them as normal human beings and not used the illness as a plot device? It seems to be one of the rarest of approaches in Hollywood.
The film focuses on Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Pat is bipolar and has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital after eight months of treatment following a violent encounter with the man his wife was having an affair with. Tiffany, meanwhile, is a recovering sex addict with an explosive temper and obsessive tendencies.
So when David O. Russell attached himself to making a film about these two damaged people finding each other at their most vulnerable, well, I was excited. Russell is a filmmaker who, in the past at least, has been unafraid to take chances with character development, theme and execution. There was reason to believe this could have been something special.
Sadly, I was mistaken. Although, it’s not entirely Russell’s fault. Allow me to explain.
Bradley Cooper. Who keeps putting this guy in leading roles? I don’t understand it. He’s a smug, bland actor who tries way too hard in nearly every scene he’s in. There’s a reason his most natural role was that of a smug, smarmy, jerk of a rich cheating boyfriend in “Wedding Crashers.” He’s like the physical manifestation of someone’s vague description of “generic handsome movie star.”
Normally I can just sort of ignore the guy (or he can, at best, be innocuous in something like “The A-Team”) as he fades from memory of whatever mostly inconsequential movie he’s in. But here, Cooper has the presence of an actor who thinks he’s giving a far deeper and more emotionally affecting performance than he’s remotely capable of pulling off. He’s in over his head, and instead of coming across as someone who seems truly damaged and desperate, he’s mostly bland and just sort of…there.
Lawrence has some amount of presence, whereas Cooper just sort of takes up space. Chemistry, a spark beyond what the script simply “says” exists between characters, must be present in spades for something like this to work. We have to believe that these two fragile people can only find solace in each other, that there is some amount of unspoken attraction that drives them closer. Lawrence and Cooper share nothing of the sort.
The supporting cast is uniformly great, at least. It’s a real pleasure to see Robert De Niro (here as Pat’s father) actually put forth effort and remind us all that he, in fact, at one point was a pretty great actor. Speaking of reminders of talent, Chris Tucker steals every scene he’s in. Hopefully this is encouragement enough for him to start doing movies other than “Rush Hour” sequels.
What kills the film for me, though, is the toothless ending.
This is not a film that should or needed to have an ending where everything is tidy and happy and easily resolved. That doesn’t mean it needed to be dour and sad or even necessarily complicated. What it needed was to feel honest, and it doesn’t. Things get solved with a dance number, for crying out loud. In almost any other film by Russell I’d think he was commenting on the trite nature of romantic comedies, but he plays it so straight and earnest here that it never feels like something he’s aiming for.
The result is a film that essentially ignores the trials and struggles and problems and damage that has been endured over the course of the film for a resolution that is completely at odds with the characters at its center. For a film that seems to earnestly and honestly examine mental health issues and the people affected, this is massively disappointing.
Has Russell lost his edge? It’s entirely possible. Hopefully this is simply a fluke, though, and we’ll next time see material closer to what we know him capable of.