Silver Linings Playbook - review

The excess baggage in this film is thankfully relieved by Robert De Niro's grumpy-funny turn.

Silver Linings Playbook (15)
dir: David O Russell

It’s clear that the hero and heroine of Silver Linings Playbook are made for one another from the moment they meet. He asks her immediately how her husband died, having been warned not to raise the topic, while she quizzes him about the medication he’s on now that he has been discharged from a mental institution. It turns out they’ve both taken many of the same meds. Small world! He is Pat (Bradley Cooper), trying to put his life back together after being found guilty of a violent attack on his wife’s lover. She is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose response to bereavement has been to sleep around at the office, drawing the line only at the coffee machine.

Of course, Pat and Tiffany don’t know they are right for each other. They’re in a film, whereas we are watching one and have doubtless seen many such odd-couple stories of love among the antidepressants (Benny and Joon, say, or Mike Figgis’s underrated Mr Jones). Hollywood’s attitude towards mental illness has typically been patronising or simplistic but then so has its attitude towards most disabilities. Why should the mentally ill get special privileges? Silver Linings Playbook is no exception, though it does have instances of authentic feeling distinct from its ingratiating tone.

After leaving hospital, Pat moves in with his parents, who have their own problems – his mother (Jacki Weaver) is jittery; his father (Robert De Niro) has more than his share of superstitions and OCD. Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) is falling apart from the effort of pretending that all is dandy in his life. “People like Tiffany and me, maybe we know something,” Pat decides, and the film seems to concur. The writer-director David O Russell peddles the line that anyone declared to be suffering from a mental illness has simply got their diagnosis ahead of the rest of us.

That’s not to say Pat doesn’t have conspicuous issues. He talks a mile a minute and kids himself that he and his wife are working on their marriage, overlooking the restraining order she has against him. He expresses his dissatisfaction with A Farewell to Arms by throwing the book out of the window, which would be fine if he opened the window first. His is a photogenic condition that manifests itself in charming eccentricity – ordering cereal on a dinner date, exercising overenthusiastically while wearing a bin liner – rather than in drooling and swaying. When Pat suffers a relapse, the script piles on the mitigating circumstances. He keeps his temper in check after seeing his psychiatrist racially insulted. He holds back even when the man is assaulted. But once the miscreants start on Pat’s brother –well, that’s too much. Let us be grateful no one saw fit to add an injured orphan into the mix.

It’s disappointing to find such cautious filmmaking from Russell, who has in the past aimed for the funny bone via the cerebral cortex rather than the tear ducts or the heartstrings. His 1994 debut, Spanking the Monkey, a breezy story of mother-son incest, announced a talent for finding comic tensions in dysfunctional families.

Russell pursued this in the screwball adoption comedy Flirting With Disaster (1996) and The Fighter (2010), a boxing movie in which the most electrifying spats were verbal and domestic. So it follows that the strongest moments in Silver Linings Playbook arise when large groups of people are barking and bantering in humdrum living rooms, lit by the cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi with celebratory brightness. (He shoots the whole film in a kind of beige dazzle.)

Cooper, known primarily for the vulgar Hangover films, nails Pat’s mania but not the mournful side of the character. Lawrence, who at 22 has given enough outstanding performances (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) to seem like a veteran already, is nicely abrasive.

The biggest surprise comes from De Niro, whose previous comedy work has drawn from a shallow well: however amusing he was in Midnight Run or Analyse This, he was being grumpy-funny, De Niro-funny. Playing Pat Sr, he locates in himself a lightness that has no overlap with his past roles. In proving that it is possible to cast off cumbersome baggage, he expresses in his gentle performance the same message that the film takes two hours and much superfluous huffing and puffing to convey.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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A renaissance of conductorless orchestras reveals the limits of traditional leadership

What could the modern counterparts of the first conductor-free orchestras, once a socialist utopian vision, teach our politicians today?

Moscow, 1922. In the bitterly cold first months of the year, word spreads among concert-goers of an innovative concert soon to be held in the Hall of Columns in the House of Trade Unions, in the Kremlin. The concept? A conductorless orchestra.

It was called Persimfans (an acronym: Pervyi simfonischeskii ansambl bez dirigera) – or First Symphonic Orchestra without a Conductor. By doing away with the conductor – the musical figure of authority – its founders sought to embody the egalitarian ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution; Persimfans was a microcosm of socialist utopia.

Before the Revolution, Persimfans’s founder, Lev Tseitlin, had travelled to the United States, where he became disillusioned with the structure of modern orchestras. He loathed their latent hierarchies; the ultimate authority of the conductor, the leader, section principals, trailing all the way back to the fourth desk of double basses. Under this system, Tseitlin believed, musicians were reduced to mere “mechanical keys”, which the conductor simply “played”.

In Persimfans, Tseitlin turned the internal mechanics of an orchestra on their head. Hierarchies were dismantled and socially egalitarian principles were instilled; all members received equal pay, players were free to choose their voice or desk (traditionally viewed as a measure of ability), and committees were established for decisions regarding performance and interpretation.

Players were required to study the entire score, knowing the part of every player in the orchestra (in traditional set-ups, players are only given the music for the instrument they play). The musicians faced each other directly to maximise rhythmic homogeneity, with some even having their backs to the audience. Any arrangement that implied authoritarian motivations was eradicated, replaced by a system that prioritised the collective.

Persimfans was fairly successful for a number of years. The enormously influential Otto Klemperer, after having heard a Persimfans concert, is reported to have said: “If this kind of thing continues, we conductors will have to find a new trade.”

But despite the orchestra’s initial popularity – and imitations cropping up in Baku, Kiev, and Leipzig – it had been disbanded by 1933. The exact reasons why are unknown, but it’s likely economic forces eventually took their toll, with players working long hours for poor pay – that, and alleged ideological fights within the string section (some things never change).

Once the original fell by the wayside, so too did the concept and – apart from a few exceptions in Eastern Europe – conductorless orchestras largely disappeared for a number of decades.

However, in the 1970s, conductorless orchestras underwent a renaissance. And now, numerous orchestras operate on both sides of the Atlantic with great success.

One of the first to appear in that decade was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York. Although free of the ideologically-laden mission of Persimfans, many of its core tenets resemble its ancestor. It aims to “create extraordinary musical experiences through collaboration and innovation”, “challenge artistic boundaries” and “inspire the public to think and work with new perspectives”.

The orchestra’s musical plaudits are now numerous, having won a Grammy in 2001 for a brilliant album of Stravinsky’s orchestral miniatures. The orchestra also appears annually at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall.

But does the premise of a conductorless orchestra have any real-world currency? As Tim Thulson, a cellist with Washington DC-based conductorless orchestra Ars Nova, tells me, “artists thinking about political problems are, admittedly, like poker players who aren’t betting real money”.

Well, in 2007, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra became one of the first winners of the Worldwide Award for the Most Democratic Workplaces – an award that recognises organisations “based on freedom, instead of fear and control . . . allowing people to self-govern and determine their own destiny”.

How are the ideals honoured by the award practically enacted? And how do those qualities instil leadership?

Firstly, the principle that anyone can influence artistic direction remains paramount. “We must have all our players ready and willing to speak up, to stop the orchestra, to argue for their ideas,” Thulson says. “Even if they’re in what’s traditionally a non-leadership seat. If the presumption is that high voices get to lead, we have to treat that as a fragile presumption . . . We can’t let traditions make us boorish or lazy.”

But another, crucial, principle concerns sound – and how audiences react to the difference in sonority of conductorless orchestras. Whereas traditional concert-goers talk about “the composer, the sonata form, or the great recordings they’ve heard”, Thulson explains, Ars Nova audiences discuss their “concert experience”; the dynamism of the players and “how exciting it is to hear the inner workings of the music”.

This is a common positive appraisal of conductorless orchestras – their demonstrative, vital and dynamic nature. It’s an attribute often credited to the diversified origin of the artistic ideas that make up a musical performance. As opposed to the single vision of the conductor, audience members hear the collective conception of between 30 and 40 musicians.

Thulson views this premise as having broader social implications. “Pluralistic society,” he says, “gives us more sources of social good of all sorts, whether that’s ethical traditions beyond our own or simply global cuisine.”

Notions of pluralism are under intense scrutiny in the current US presidential election. Now more than ever, diversity and difference are under attack from the narrow-minded politics of Donald Trump. Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy, the co-authors of Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestras, think the Republican nominee could learn a few lessons from the tenets of conductorless orchestras.

“Leadership ensembles are high-performing multi-leader teams that share and rotate leadership roles based on knowledge and expertise, and operate collaboratively on trust, mutual respect, emotional intelligence and integrity,” Seifter says.

“In each of those respects, they are the antithesis of the politics of Donald Trump, and the ethos of Trumpism.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Thulson argues, is the leader representative of collaborative politics. “Good leaders are servant leaders . . . They’re moderators whose first responsibility is to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard.”

Although a conductorless orchestra may seem like a radical parallel to draw, and while listening to the public may seem like a basic point to make, recent political events – the ascent of Trump, Brexit and broader euroscepticism – have shown what happens when the fundamentals of democracy are forgotten.