In America the family that frays together stays together, at least in the heads of those witnessing its story. Where would we be – we readers, playgoers, screen spectators – without the screaming matches, weeping fits and confessional unravellings of US drama, from Long Day’s Journey Into Night to East of Eden to Dallas? Answer: we would be poor cultural starvelings, nourished only on the feelgood.
Outrageously, though, we get that too – the feelgood – in the gloriously enjoyable picture of domestic meltdown that is David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. This tragicomedy from a novel by Matthew Quick has its cake, eats it and then distributes fortune cookies. (Russell’s best work, Three Kings, had the same multidimensional generosity of imagination.) Is the new film too exuberantly watchable in its mishaps, as “undiagnosed bipolar” teacher Bradley Cooper returns from his psychiatric home to his family home, a barely distinguishable institution containing Robert De Niro’s hyped-up bookmaker dad and Jacki Weaver’s clucking mum and regularly besieged by “crazy whore widow” Jennifer Lawrence, the Cooper-lovestruck younger sister of his estranged wife? Perhaps. Is it too anxious, in its Weinstein-produced way, to wear a Smiley badge pinned to its sackcloth? Perhaps.
But who will seriously complain? The film is so gloriously acted and scripted, so skilfully fearless in its parlaying of an emotional ensemble drama into a last-reel kitsch catharsis – a dance contest, forsooth – that we fall over backwards, in the movie’s own time and under its guidance, to let it tickle our tummies.
You need a tummy of stone not to be tickled by De Niro, defining with every finicky-frenzied gesture the volatile psychological patrimony he has handed to his son. (First Meet the Parents, now this; is De Niro a late-developing comedy genius?) Though Cooper may be miscast – even two Hangovers cannot quite haze the “well-adjusted jock” sheen his stardom wears – Jennifer Lawrence acts enough for two. Her frazzled dynamo of a character is a bad hair day on legs, a street spitfire with a comeback for all occasions, and an unrequited love victim whose every arrhythmic, grief-stricken heartbeat we feel. Is this really the same star whose lymphatic, generic acting seemed designed to help detractors (include me) deride The Hunger Games? Enough. Silver Linings Playbook is all things to all movie-goers. Please join the queues circling the blocks.
American documentarist Eugene Jarecki made Why We Fight (2005), a powerfully argued critique of US militarism, indicting the hypocrisies and hidden agendas, not least industrial and profit-driven, that underlie a nation’s war efforts. The House I Live In is more of the same. This time it is the “war on drugs”. From Nixon’s presidency to the present day, that gung-ho slogan has echoed around the White House. But what does it mean?
It means too little and too much, Jarecki suggests. Like the “war on terror” its terminological target is grand but imprecise. The drugs are not the foe but their use, abuse and hydra-headed function, or exploitation, as an agent of dysfunction. We start with Jarecki’s childhood black housekeeper, who lost her son to drugs in the supposedly impregnable protectorate of affluent New England. Then we fan outwards, backwards and every which way to see how racism, poverty, a mass jailing culture – the US is the world’s most incarceration-happy major nation – and again the industrial profit motive (all those private prisons) stoke what in the sixties was called a subculture and must now be called – what? – an omniculture? A pandemic? An apocalypse?
Phew. Or phews. From the first of the phews to the last, Jarecki is a stickler for sticking to his subject, or sub-subject, until it squeals like a leech victim. This 108-minute film could be shorter: a handful of pithy sentences from TV’s The Wire creator David Simon, a hobbyist and lobbyist in drug matters, sums up most of what Jarecki has to say. It is enriching even so to meet those involved – the victims and would-be vanquishers of drug abuse, the casualties of ill-practised enforcement – and to perceive the scars, visible or invisible, made by a merciless, and by all statistics unmitigated, machinery for social misery.
Some fiction movies knock politely on the door to gain attention, others kick it in. David Ayer’s End of Watch is even more assaultive than his best-known previous film as screenwriter, Training Day. This “day in the life” cop drama presents law enforcement in South Central Los Angeles (Ayer’s birthplace) as an extreme blood sport. The only difference: no one knows from minute to minute who is the quarry, who the hunter. Lots of people get blown away. In one scene a cop squats on a sidewalk with a knife stuck in his eye. In an even more gruesome scene – no, I won’t go there; keep your breakfast.
The nearly nonstop handheld camera, now standing for patrol cop Jake Gyllenhaal’s personal camcorder, now just giddying our point-of-view, would seem a verismo action thriller cliché without this film’s honourable humanising endeavours. In their cop car Gyllenhaal and partner Michael Peña swear, jabber and horseplay; after hours, they patch together their fallible home lives. Each is on the brink of marriage or fatherhood. In the bloody noon of their day job they stumble on drugs, deaths, a house full of human traffic captives, another house full of dismembered body parts … Though we doubt the scene near the end where they run into an apartment block and improbably escape a staccato of machinegun fire, we don’t doubt what immediately follows: a cool and grisly face-off between recognised helplessness (theirs) and goonishly exultant brutality (the baddies). In this world all’s ill that ends ill, and it regularly does.
American filmmakers can catch Anglophilia like an infection. It makes them, for a span, all skittish and light-headed. The Austin Powers series was the bug writ big: a silly ass English super-agent flexed his twerpitude against Bondish-Britannic baddies. Gambit proves that even the Coens can come down with limey-philia. Never mind that the original comedy thriller (1966) starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine was barely worth making, even less remaking; the heist-caper plot about art forgery has now fluked into the Fargo brothers’ writing hands, though for direction they defer to Britain’s Michael Restoration Hoffman.
Colin Firth’s nitwit art expert is pitted against Alan Rickman’s millionaire collector, with Cameron Diaz as the Texan cowgirl who may or may not own a priceless Monet. Against odds the film is sometimes funny, bandying its dated tropes like a badge of pride. There is much trouserless clambering by Firth inside and outside a posh London hotel. There is much sneery command, dandyish put-downing and foghorn intonation from Rickman, on this form a kind of Noël Coward conflated with Frankie Howerd. Diaz is more tiresome – the part rather than the player – but even she brings a rough-hewn rightness to the romantic harmonies, her twangling southern siren tangling with Firth’s sempiternally strangulated Englishman.