One of the frequent comments made about Christoph Waltz’s performance in Django Unchained was that he in it “he does that thing he does” – a reference to his genteel menace in, well, everything. I interpreted his performance quite differently, especially in contrast to Inglourious Basterds. Colonel Landa was polite, it’s true, but if you watch scene-versus-scene with Django Unchained, you’ll see more differences than similarities. Dr Schultz is a gentler soul; true, he is a killer, but he is practical about it, not enthusiastic. Landa menaces people with the slightly-submerged hard-edge, but Schultz is recognizably out of his comfort zone in the second half of the film. Ultimately, Landa is a cold-hearted opportunist, while Schultz feels such empathy for suffering that he kills Candie knowing it means certain death for himself – he just can’t let the injustices go unpunished.
In short, Christoph Waltz did not do that thing he does. He did the opposite, but people were so fixated on his mesmeric power that they just didn’t notice. And I bring that up because all of the performances in Silver Linings Playbook fall into this same performance category. Bradley Cooper is slightly manic in a bland sort of way, Robert de Niro hems and haws and has that slightly side-glance physical posture that is his specialty, and so on. Which is to say, every performance in this film is charming and interestingly subversive, using the actors’ apparent strengths to create characters quite off their usual stereotyping. Bradley Cooper is not the likeable jock and so on. By making these crazy people sympathetic and interesting, the film lifts itself out of its natural echelon; hell, even Chris Tucker is good. I didn’t know any of these actors had it in them, and the Oscar nominations reflect that accurately. [Though, on balance, I still think Emmanuelle Riva would have been my pick for Best Acress.]It pays to be clear though, that these performances are lifting, rescuing even, a film with a very weak basic plan of attack. The basic plot is the standard romantic comedy plot, which we have all seen a million times. It’s not innovative or original on that level, but it does try and complicate our relationship with that plot by playing a lot of things more-or-less straight, and by straying into murky territory. One reviewer summarized it by pointing out that people in Romantic Comedies do all kinds of crazy things because they’re In Love ™, but here they’re simply crazy; that’s a hard statement to disagree with, but that doesn’t quite cover it. Does it ever?
The two central characters are diagnosed within the fiction as being in mental disarray of various kinds. They exhibit all kinds of odd behaviour… but so do most of the rest of the cast to some degree or another. Comment has been made by others about Robert de Niro’s character’s OCD. The point of all the other craziness must surely be just that – everyone’s at least a little crazy. It humanizes and destigmatizes these two central odd characters, which allows you to like them a bit more easily- you’re not having to like a “freak”, just someone further toward the “crazy” end of a spectrum we all inhabit. The clincher is the appearance of the psychiatrist in the craziness of an Eagles game. Liking the characters is an absolutely indispensible component of the romance story, and possibly why, say, American Beauty doesn’t work for some people. Making everyone a little crazy makes it easy for us to like the central characters who’re a lot crazy, and I’ve shifted to using the word “crazy” rather than something more neutral because I think that is the intent of the film-maker. Crazy equals zany, equals interesting, equals some kind of interesting quirk – rather than something really dangerous or harmful.
The reason I think the film-maker is trying to convey this impression is in the way they have framed their shots and selected their colour palette. The early part of the film uses odd angles and a desaturated colour palette, while the latter part has a far more traditional set for both. We, the audience, are brought into the craziness at different times – our literal point of view is inside the madness, helping to build empathy for the situation and the characters. Their whole world is like that in those moments, we just share part of it.
The argument would appear to be that love is sanity, or at least, as close as people get. That is, broadly, the opposite of a conventional romantic comedy, in which love makes you crazy – as alluded to above.
Still, while interesting, that concept is akin to the kind of satiric transformation I discussed elsewhere recently in that it shares a fundamental structure. The critique, if it exists, of Romantic Comedies, is on the level of narrative presentation rather than a deconstruction of the concepts in play. So, while I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I was expecting, I guess my recommendation is to go watch When Harry Met Sally instead, for its smarter deconstruction of male-female relations within the Romantic Comedy genre.