Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Silver Linings Playbook," "The Sessions" and the Cinematic Power of Modern Love

This Oscar season we've got history lessons, tear-jerking requiems and lots of deadly water, but for me, as usual, it's all about amour. Not the tear-jerking requiem that goes by that French title, but the living, breathing thing. Not Les Miz's at-first-sight brand of period-piece love between characters who barely speak five words to each other, but the crazy, stupid modern kind that binds beautiful losers.

If I had been an unbeliever in love before I watched Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence would have turned me around. I wasn't interested in the movie's sports stuff -- though it represents a different kind of love, the tie that can bind family members -- but what really drew me in was the look I saw in the eyes of Lawrence's character Tiffany whenever they were trained on Pat (Bradley Cooper). How is it that an actress who was born in the '90s has learned to master the art of emoting like a grown-up, when most people her age (22, 21 when she made the film) are still stumbling through expressing emotions like kids?

There's a scene in Silver Linings Playbook that reminded me of why I so admired Jennifer Lawrence in her small supporting turn in 2011's Like Crazy. In the earlier movie, when her boyfriend lets her down easy, telling her that he's still in love with his ex, Lawrence's character takes it all in stride. In fact, we might not know she's even heard him at all if it weren't for a tear stream that quickly and unexpectedly shoots from her right eye.

That tear stream returns near the end of Silver Linings Playbook -- in a happier moment, when Pat, no longer in love with his ex, is pledging his love to Tiffany, not rescinding it -- and if I hadn't already been completely aboard the Jennifer Lawrence love train, by then I would have been buying my ticket. I enjoyed all the performances in the movie, and I think Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and even Jacki Weaver are deserving of their Oscar nominations, but it was Lawrence, alternately cocky and vulnerable, angry yet bitingly funny, who kept me invested in it.

A love story anchored by a manic-depressive asshole is a hard sell, even when toplined by the increasingly bankable Bradley Cooper, who is nice to look at and excels at playing the charming semi-rogue. He navigates the film's emotional territory well, but he alone can't make Pat likable, or even tolerable. It's less Cooper's fault than the screenplay's, which is more interested in the manic (read: aggressive) side of bipolar disorder than the depressive side that would have made him more sympathetic. Tiffany brings out the best in Pat and in the movie. She made me believe in her love -- not the neat and tidy kind that we usually see in romantic comedy-dramas, but the messy sort that happens in real life.

Love comes quickly (for Mark O'Brien, a real-life poet and journalist) and unexpectedly (for Cheryl) in The Sessions. For me, the most interesting aspect of The Sessions is how it plays with love's traditional gender roles, at once reinforcing and reversing them. In one corner, you have a guy who falls easily and hard (a role usually reserved for the woman) and a lady who is detached and clinical (a role usually reserved for the man). For Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate, her relationship with Mark (John Hawkes, previously seen scoring an Oscar nomination opposite Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone) is a business transaction, no emotions or personal entanglements involved. What's love got to do with it? Absolutely nothing.

Slowly, she starts to come around, and the way Hunt plays it -- rigid and tightly wound but gentle and caring, eventually letting flickers of feelings show -- might be the first time she's ever moved me as an actress. Despite her relegation to the Best Supporting Actress category, The Sessions is as much her story as it is Mark's, and her emotional arc is the movie's primary one.

While it's reversing gender roles, The Sessions also reinforces the traditional flip side -- the expected behavior of both sexes. Throughout the movie's 95 minutes, Mark falls for three different women, and in a voice over, he brags that they all loved him back and will no doubt show up to mourn him at his funeral. He knows he'll die relatively young, and one of my favorite things about Mark, the film and Hawkes' performance is that none of them plays the pity card. You'd imagine a movie about a man with polio who lives as a quadriplegic because his body's muscles don't work and spends most of his life flat on his back inside an iron lung to be full of tears and angst, but it's not.

Maybe it's because we meet Mark when he's 38 and has had 30 years to come to terms with his situation. Whatever the reason for the lack of storm and stress, taking away both the use of his limbs and his angst means Hawkes has that much less to play with, yet he still manages to give such a full-bodied performance. It's restrained and internal, the opposite of Cooper's physical one in Silver Linings Playbook, which might be why Cooper got the Best Actor Oscar nomination and Hawkes didn't.

Mark is sweet and tender and surprisingly funny, but in the end, though he can't walk like a man, he acts and thinks just like one. The movie goes to great lengths to play up his virility despite his physical limitations (yes, it still works, and judging from Cheryl's reaction, it's pretty sizable, too), and one gets the impression that if it weren't for those physical limitations, he might be a typical male, the kind who feels deeply but never lets you see him cry. If he could walk like a man, he'd probably be hopping from bed to bed. He's certainly got the manhood for it.

Note his non-reaction when Cheryl, who is married, exits his life two sessions early. Clearly he has real feelings for her, but it's not long before he's falling again, making a play for another woman he barely knows (the third over the course of the movie), moving on decisively without any grand displays of emotion. Because of his physical condition and Hawkes' approach to the material, he comes across as sensitive and endearing. He latches onto the constants in his life (especially when she's beautiful) and gives them his all, but he's the kind of guy who would send a "Love Poem for No One In Particular" to one love and share it with his next one.

Maybe it's because he knows he doesn't have much time, so why waste it crying over lost loves? Or maybe, like the traditional he-male, the one who gets to sleep around outside an iron lung, he's mastered the art of emotional survival: Love 'em, leave 'em (or in Mark's case, watch 'em leave), don't cry. There's always another love right around the corner.
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