This was a film that looked “indie” from the first time I saw the trailer. In truth it it fairly mainstream, with a story line that would fit in alongside most of today’s romantic comedies. The main differences are the things that separate and bring together our two main characters. Both Bradley Cooper’s Pat and Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany are afflicted by deep emotional problems . They have the kinds of mental illnesses that are treatable, but require a discipline that each of them has difficulty mastering. We get to know these characters in a traditional way, with a traditional story arc, but the dialogue, complications and settings are what make it unique. With one minor reservation, I bought the story and the outcome, but the reservation is an important one that might effect another persons willingness to go along for the ride.
It probably will sound petty, but my concern has to do with the accuracy of the way mental illness is depicted here. In the first half of the film, it is harrowing, and frightening and incredibly honest. The way Pat is obsessed with his former wife and the delusions that he suffers from are shown in vivid detail. It is too easy to imagine what a nightmare it would be to have a family member so close to going over the edge at any minute. Pat’s family is subjected to abuse, embarrassment and fear as a result of his outbursts. His mother legitimately worries that he could end up institutionalized, and she has taken on the responsibility of making sure he gets back into the world. His father is also concerned but seems to be distracted by his own mental health issues. Pat Sr. is played by Robert DeNiro in a performance that reminds us that he is indeed a talented actor, even though he has been coasting for years in a variety of product. His facial expressions and world weary voice, combined with a calm mania, show us that the roots of mental illness may indeed be genetic. This will probably be a performance recognized at awards time in the supporting category. DeNiro is not flashy in the role, he is just real and emotional enough to make us care, despite his obvious failings.
Bradley Cooper has been a pretty boy movie star for several years now. Here, he gets the chance to work some acting chops that he has shown in other roles, but which now bring him forward as a true dramatic actor and not simply a leading man. The expressions on his face reveal his yearning for his old life and his wife, but they also share the underlying anger and aggression that frightened her off in the first place. The script tells us what he did to get into this position, but even better, it allows him to show us where he is at any given time. In the fist part of the film, all of this rings true. When the story starts to play out the conventions, he still does a good job, it is the script that weakens the film. There is progress made in the story for both of our leads, but that progress seems like it was earned a little too easily given what we see from each of them. Jennifer Lawrence is in the third movie I have seen her in this year, and she does her best acting in this film. She is so believable as the wounded widow with disturbing social tendencies, that it is a little hard to believe the story arc develops as quickly as it does once the dance competition is on the horizon. Again, the fault is in the conventional arc of the story, not in the performance itself.
Other than the “too pat” changes in their mental stability, the story is a winner. Each of these people has to find the ability to trust the other and discover the strength to face their problems. There is a dance competition which becomes Tiffany’s main focus and for which Pat has to be cajoled into caring about. Pat has to confront his father’s fanaticism about the Eagles Football team, and his own obsession with his wife. Most of these issues come together like any straight rom-com, simultaneous and with the greatest chance to disrupt the blossoming romance as possible. Each protagonist has failings that they then have to own up to in order to gain the final acceptance that we want all along. While traditional in structure, the devices are different. They involve gambling, ballroom dancing and dysfunctional relatives. In addition to Pat’s Dad, Tiffany’s sister and brother in-law have mental issues to be resolved. Even Pat’s therapist has his own problems that become an obstacle over the course of the film. The creativity of these issues and the way the characters play them out are what make this movie special.
The music was exceptionally good in the background. The score fit well with the story and the popular music selections worked as devices to bring characters together or remind us of the circumstances. I heard a Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duet in one scene. Johnny Cash was a great musician, and it seems right to me that we hear so much more of his music now in films than when he was alive. Chris Tucker comes out of nowhere and injects some fun into the proceedings in a way that makes Cooper and Lawrence’s development a little more believable. In the end, you know that the story is not going to pull the Ernest Hemingway plot development that so enrages Pat early on. Instead, we are going to get the ending that his character would have written if he was the author of A Farewell to Arms. It may not be cutting edge indie film making, but it is romantic and satisfying.