Posted in Film, Writing

How to Blend Comedy with Serious Subject Matter

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook is a gem, the kind of film you can recommend to just about every age group. No matter what kind of movies you may like, there’s something in this one for everybody. It’s the kind of carefully constructed movie that does it all: makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you cheer. Every scene cackles with energy. Every performance raises the bar. And it’s also enormously entertaining.

Writer/director David O. Russell has had an eclectic career, mostly of films that split audiences down the line. Three Kings was a head-scratcher, and I Heart Huckabees has both its fans (not me). He disappeared for awhile then re-appeared on the scene in 2010 with The Fighter, a great crowd-pleasing movie, and Silver Linings Playbook is even better. It works on your emotions from the first scene on, as it introduces us to Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former high school teacher with mental health issues, in and out of institutions, whose mom brings him back home with the hope he can finally get back on his feet.

The dynamics between Pat and his parents (Robert De Niro and Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver) gets the film steamrolling forward in the first half-hour, and if the movie had justbeen about this, it still would’ve been good. But then Jennifer Lawrence shows up, and all bets are off. She’s an unpredictable, abrasive, also mentally unstable young woman whose husband has just been killed in a car accident, and she takes to Pat right away.

While some elements of their relationship may stick to formula, the characters are so interesting, and their chemistry is so palpable, that you won’t mind. You root for them all the way through to the end, especially when it comes to a dance competition at the end that should feel like something out of a dumber, lesser movie yet somehow works, and works great.

The performances in Silver Linings Playbook are all stand-outs. Bradley Cooper did a swell job in 2011’s Limitless, but this is his breakthrough. He’s manic and sad, and even hard to like in the beginning, but his character grows on you, and the transition he makes throughout the film is subtle and believable. Robert De Niro has been working steadily for decades, but ever since his comedic turn in Analyze This in 1999, his juicy roles have been few and far between. As a father of a mentally unstable son, one who he wants to spend time with despite their many years of differences, De Niro hits just the right note. Jacki Weaver is a delight as the caring mom, Dash Mihok is memorable as an atypically sympathetic police officer, Anupam Kher gets many of the funniest lines as Pat’s doctor, and Chris Tucker is a welcome addition to the ensemble cast.

The powerhouse, of course, is Jennifer Lawrence. The film works great, but it reaches another level with the addition of her character, and her electric performance. Having broken into the mainstream with The Hunger Games, Lawrence (who was rightly nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Winter’s Bone), is becoming her generation’s Meryl Streep. Silver Linings Playbook is a delight from start to finish.

Watching Like a Writer

This film makes me think about how to approach serious subject matter like mental illness in a story that’s also meant to be funny. It’s Kind of a Funny Story, both the book and the film, also navigated this fine line to a great effect, but if you don’t do the work, don’t bring the nuance to more serious moments or make the funny moments too broad, you might lose the reader or viewer. You need to take the character seriously and have the comedy come from truth, always.

Exercise!

What’s a serious subject matter you don’t often see tackled in a comedic story? How would YOU find a way to approach the material?

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