Silver Linings Playbook Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence. Directed by David O Russell. M. ★★★★★
While two Oscar best-picture contenders, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty, merit their honours in contrasting ways, one in particular exceeds expectations while the other could be less compelling than expected, even though it is technically impressive.
Silver Linings Playbook, a screwball comedy-drama-romance about mental instability in a crazy world, is by writer-director David O Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings).
It has nine Oscar nominations, including best director and adapted screenplay, while being the only film this year and first since 1981 (Reds) to earn nominations in all four acting categories.
Zero Dark Thirty, by director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who collaborated in The Hurt Locker, chronicles the nine-year hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It has five Oscar nominations, including best actress and original screenplay.
In Silver Linings Playbook, ex-teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper) is back home in Philadelphia with his parents (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) after eight months in psychiatric care for an assault sparked by his wife's adultery.
Pat was diagnosed as bipolar and delusional, but despite a restraining order to stay away from his wife, he is desperate to reconcile and reunite with her.
Undergoing therapy, he is intent on remaking himself and a key part is to avoid stress and be positive, finding silver linings in life.
However, his refusal to take his medication and his obsession with his wife produce stress, and his life is tossed into an even greater emotional spin when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the young widow of a cop struggling to regain balance in her life.
In their developing friendship, Pat and Tiffany find an unsettling attraction to each other, which will eventually be tested when a family wager is made about a big game and a ballroom dancing competition.
The film also tells where the expression "OK" came from and offers this advice for life (rugby player Zac Guildford, take note): "Don't drink too much, don't hit anybody and you'll be all right".
Russell's film, based on Matthew Quick's 2008 novel, is a twisting, funny, poignant, smart, sensitive and warm-hearted movie about love, relationships, family and friends. It also provides an acting feast.
Cooper gives his best performance so far as Pat, who suffers from mood swings and has poor social skills, a result of having no filter when talking.
It is also De Niro's best performance and role in years as Pat's father, who has his own issues - he is a temperamental sports fanatic, superstitious to an almost obsessive-compulsive degree and sees Pat as a good-luck charm.
Remarkable Lawrence confirms the talent she showed in her debut film Winter's Bone, while Australian Weaver receives her second Oscar best supporting actress nomination in three years, her role as Pat's loving mum an alter ego to her wicked mother in Animal Kingdom.
Others in the cast deserve mention: John Ortiz as Pat's friend, married to domineering Veronica (Julia Stiles), Chris Tucker as Pat's hospital nutty buddy, Shea Wigham as Pat's brother and Anupam Kher as Pat's psychiatrist.
Altogether, they arguably deliver the best ensemble cast performance in what proves to be a feel-good, compassionate movie about love and support buoying life in a maddening world.
Zero Dark Thirty: Starring Jessica Chastain. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. ★★★★
Zero Dark Thirty tells its story, "based on first-hand accounts of actual events", through one key player: a CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who becomes our pilot-navigator in the world's greatest manhunt.
Through her, we witness the torture of detainees by the CIA, who called it "questioning under duress" and used it in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with Maya becoming a reluctant participant.
These scenes have sparked some controversy, but the film avoids debate about torture's morality and depicting it as being successful or not.
Through Maya and her dogged persistence, the procedural story becomes a fragmented search, with chapter headings, for leads, contacts and connections to identify the whereabouts of bin Laden, while portraying the difficulties and risks involved.
The film reeks of authenticity and dangers (bombings, ambushes), but the first 90 minutes is often such a complex hop-skipping through names, places and key moments that it is bewildering.
While dramatic in themselves, as screen drama, they struggle to be continually gripping.
Not until the final hour, with the manhunt closing in on bin Laden's possible hideout and the 12.30am (the film's title) mission to find and kill him, does the film become tense and suspenseful, despite its known outcome.
Bigelow's craft and Chastain's performance hold the film together, supported by Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Mark Duplass, Stephen Dillane, Joel Edgerton and Chris Platt.
Surely, the best actress Oscar will go to Chastain or Lawrence.
Next week: Lincoln (12 Oscar nominations) is reviewed.
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