As we barrel towards the Oscar nominations on January 10, I wanted to get as many of these reviews and essays about the possible contenders out of the way, which is why I’m stacking these two together.  They also happen to be companion pieces in many respects: both figure American men in early middle age struggling with both internal and external issues; they are directed by indie stalwarts; both are macro examinations and celebrations of non-urban America, one rural the other suburban; they are love stories.  I’m sure I can build other flimsy bridges between them, but I’ll leave those four themes as reason enough for this twin review.

While trying to persuade a friend who wanted to see Les Misérables to see Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land instead, he asked, “What sort of a Van Sant film is it?”

“The Good Will Hunting/Milk kind,” I replied.  In other words, the more mainstream social-issues-driven variety, rather than Gus’ own private Idaho of pretty male teens and the trouble they get into, which is the sort of film he prefers making, but can’t make a living on.

The production back story with Promised Land is this was meant to be Matt Damon’s directorial debut, from a script he wrote with John Krasinski, based on a story by Dave Eggers.  Damon had to step down as director due to scheduling conflicts, and asked Gus to step in, which explains why the film has so little of the auteur director’s imprimatur on it.

Rent.  Ain’t it a bitch?

Why Eggers either wasn’t invited to write the script or isn’t credited as a writer is itself a detail I would love to know, and might make an effort to find the truth about.  Another scheduling conflict?  I admire Eggers for his almost inexhaustible supply of stories and the equally boundless energy and gusto of his writing style.  Reading him is like watching someone frack his own mind to tap its resources shamelessly.  Even if he isn’t credited with the script itself, there is a definite Eggers playfulness-amidst-tragedy feeling to Promised Land.

The filmmakers were apparently out to make a film about social issues, any social issues, which is a large part of what Damon is all about as a person, for better or worse.  (I think he misstepped with his criticism of Obama, and was elegantly rebuked by the President for it.)  The original premise was supposed to be the evils of wind power, but was changed to the dangers of fracking for natural gas, which was a hot topic after a documentary called Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010.  Damon and Krasinski decided not to tilt at windmills, and went for the jugular of another alternative source of energy.  A wise decision: I’ve read up on the perils of wind power and they aren’t as dramatic.  Still, it seems no matter what we tap for the power to drive our modern lives, some demon or other will always be uncovered.

Matt Damon in Promised Land

This image is in it.

Damon plays the good-guy rep of a bad-guy nine-billion-dollar corporation out to dupe a rural town into signing over their land for fracking.  The shale beneath the town and its farms in particular is worth a considerable amount of money that this community could use to pull itself out of relentless and worsening economic doldrums.

The premise of the film and its structure are solid, but the piece as a whole never lives up to its true potential à la Erin Brockovich or Silkwood.  And this is because of a certain comedic flippancy inherent in the script itself, heightened by the performances of the writers/producers, which downgrades the dramatic impact.  Right from the start, it becomes infused with the fifth unifying theme between this film and Silver Linings Playbook: truthiness of characterization.

It could be that these films are too close to what I do as a writer-director for me to ignore the character-truthiness and the lack of authenticity for the sake of the film as a piece of entertainment, the way I might overlook the singing in Les Misérables because I know nothing about music.  I’ll admit that I watched both Promised Land and Silver Linings Playbook under the microscope because I am in the process of rewriting a similar kind of Americana script, and it’s always a sound idea to compare what you’re doing to whatever is currently in wide release.  In the case of Promised Land, it felt like there was a tug of war going on between Gus’ attempt to provide an authentic Dorothea Lange-esque portrait of a rural America in the middle of the Great Recession and the script/actors’ demands that none of this be taken too seriously via these bizarre dips into goofy humor that, again, puncture the dramatic impact from the start.

Rosemarie DeWitt in Promised Land

Rosemarie DeWitt’s supercilious smiles are intensely annoying.

This hampering truthiness is a shame because in real life the film itself has caused a similar public outcry to the one it portrays, and when art becomes meta it is never more relevant.  According to Wikipedia, a group of residents from Armstrong County, PA, where some of the film is shot, have been protesting the film. “They filmed this movie in our backyard,” the group wrote in a post on a dedicated Facebook page.  “They told us it would be fair to drilling. It’s not. We’re p*ssed [sic].”

While I smell Tea Party all over this counter-revolutionary movement—you can’t even bring yourselves to spell out ‘pissed’ in this day and age?—I’m fairly confident that had this film been less casual with its characterizations it would achieve a similar importance to Milk.  (That Krasinski stars in the TV show The Office, a mockumentary-style comedy, seems to have overly informed his approach to the script.)

Matt Damon is pleasant and engaging, as always, his dynamic with Frances McDormand, a distinctly more diverse performer than he, almost enviable in its fluidity.  Like George Clooney, or even his friend Ben Affleck, Damon never works outside a highly restricted area.  He’s always the stalwart crane, the man’s man, who lifts the narrative up and plunks it where it needs to be.  Actors like Damon couldn’t be further from the likes of Sean Penn or Daniel Day Lewis, who throw their all into everything they do almost regardless of the consequences—they push the outer limits of who they are, and by extension who we are.  They are the only kind of actor that should be considered for major awards.

As my long-time readers know, I am passionate about mental illness, which means there was a lot for me to love about Silver Linings Playbook.  I was bowled over by David O. Russell’s last outing, The Fighter.  That was as authentic as cinema can be while still aiming for mainstream America, not just a respectable existence on the European film festival circuit with no commercial distribution.

I’m not sure there is anything an actor like Bradley Cooper can do to carry a film like this all the way to the finish without stumbling or disappointing.  Whereas Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, the stars of The Fighter, can step out of their looks, strip away their hunkness for the sake of achieving authenticity in performance, Cooper is a ‘viggle,’ a term I coined to make fun of guys on gay hookup sites who used to call themselves VGL, or ‘very good-looking.’  When you are at that level of pulchritude, you risk becoming like the man in the iron mask, your expression and expressiveness trapped both by how you feel you look and how you are perceived by others.  I give Cooper top marks for effort, and lhe is lucky to be bolstered by a superlative script, but in the end he failed to convince me that he was this bipolar train wreck, forget that he was really from an archetypal boisterous Italo-American family.  That part I never bought.  And nothing underscored that ethnic discrepancy more than having him play opposite the real thing, Robert De Niro himself, who is never more comfortable or authentic than when he’s performing in the kitchen and living room of a suburban house.  At best, Cooper looks like he was adopted from an Anglo-American couple, but then sent away to New England to one of the better boarding schools at an early age.  Jarring.

Misplaced, but utterly convincing as a couple.

Misplaced, but utterly convincing as a couple.

Apparently, Russell replaced Wahlberg with Cooper, creating a rift with his longtime friend, who caused The Fighter to be made even though Russell had been “sidelined.”  In my opinion, this was a mistake.  This role was written for Wahlberg, clearly, and it could have been his Oscar.

Jennifer Lawrence is far more convincing, but she is also a more nuanced, confident actor.  Perhaps if she weren’t side by side with Cooper she wouldn’t also seem so out of place in that environment.  For example, when the two of them go for a non-date to a local diner, the scene looks like a Gucci ad colliding with a Dennys commercial, as if the models from the former have strutted off the set because they decided they’d rather appear in the latter.  And the camera followed them.

Technically speaking, Russell’s script is exemplary and faultless, oddly taut and generous at the same time.  I have watched this man grow and struggle as a writer, and this is the level that we all aspire to even if we aren’t aware of it, a personal best.  Out of everything I have seen so far, this should be the Best Adapted Screenplay, but it will probably go to Lincoln in a nod to Tony Kushner’s overall contribution to our craft.

From an intellectual standpoint, Russell successfully fracks a mother lode of crystallized thinking about human nature and how we interact in social groups: That most functional “crazy” people are no crazier than anyone else, they are simply more fully self-expressed and less self-conscious.  Still, the meds do help, and I’m glad that point was made.

Where Russell speaks to me personally is in the obsessive love aspect—Cooper’s character, Pat, is still convinced that he has a chance with his estranged wife, who he caught cheating with a ridiculously unattractive man.  This caused a nervous breakdown, which led to Pat being institutionalized, and a restraining order slapped on him by his wife, a restriction that serves the drama well.  While I have never gone to those extremes even when lovers have cheated on me, I have been known to lose it from time to time to almost alarming degrees.  As one former boyfriend observed about my behavior while I was obsessing over another guy I was dating, “You can’t heat a house with a volcano.”

Jennifer Lawrence Silver Linings PlaybookThat leads me to the truthiness of characterization that bothers me about Silver Linings Playbook: In my experience, and particularly my experience with bipolar people who are obsessed with lovers who have spurned them, there is no way Pat could move on to more suitable pastures within a matter of weeks.  It would take years, at best, if he ever got over it at all.  But Russell is allowed this relatively minor infraction because characterization should always be subservient to the needs of the narrative, and in this case the narrative demands that authenticity be bent for the sake of entertainment.

The film went off the rails for me during the climax of the second act, in the betting scene.  It suddenly became a standard rom com: two people who should be together can’t be together because of circumstances, so how are they going to surmount that and live happily ever after? (The possibility of happiness is even discussed briefly in this film. Uh oh.)  Russell plays all of this safely, if differently, right down the middle.

David goes to Hollywood.  Fair enough.  (Rent. Ain’t it a bitch?)

I’ve given this some thought, and while I would normally dock Russell for dressing up a formula film—I mean, Silver Linings Playbook is so classic that it’s Preston Sturges—I can’t fault him for it, certainly not in this day and age.  If I keep docking directors, especially auteurs, for playing along (but still making the best of that play-along), then I’d might as well just review films that are shown at the Director’s Fortnight or Un Certain Regard sidebars at Cannes, which would never see the inside of a multiplex, anyway.

If you haven’t already, definitely see Silver Linings Playbook.  Even if you’re a Gus Van Sant fan, you’re not going to find much of him living in Promised Land; again, this was meant to be Damon’s directorial debut, and it screams that.  Gus is doing a friend a favor.  Only see it if you have seen everything else.

I give Promised Land:

NICE2

And Silver Linings Playbook:

WOW

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