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'Tis The Season For Oscar-Bait Adaptations

Nov 16, 2012
Originally published on November 16, 2012 8:07 pm

It's the sort of juxtaposition that often arises at this time of year: novel adaptations arriving in droves at movie theaters, hunting for Oscar nominations.

J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastical The Hobbit and Yann Martel's lifeboat adventure Life of Pi are coming soon, and this week Leo Tolstoy's romantic tragedy Anna Karenina goes head to head with Matthew Quick's romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook.

Quick's novel centers on Pat, a bipolar guy sprung by his mom from a mental institution before he's quite ready, who has a theory that his life is a movie written and produced by God. In David O. Russell's film, God gets left out of the mix. But Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, still has plenty of theories.

"This is what I believe to be true," he says at one point. "You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you stay positive you have a shot at a silver lining."

Silver linings, of course, come with clouds, and Pat has plenty scudding through his life: He is living with his folks because his wife, with whom he's determined to reconnect, got a restraining order against him. And he's a chip off the old block: His bookmaking dad (Robert De Niro) is obsessive-compulsive, especially when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles.

And against the advice of his therapist (the stellar Anupam Kher), Pat is not taking his medication — a point that provides a conversation-starter when he meets Tiffany, a recent widow who's just as fragile (and formerly medicated) as he is.

Played by Jennifer Lawrence, Tiffany is working through her own issues by prepping for a dance competition — one that she'll try to rope Pat into — but if that makes her sound like she's got her act together, she makes Pat seem downright stable in other respects.

Writer-director Russell is just the guy to bring out (and then calm) the manic dysfunction in these folks. That's kind of been his thing in everything from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. In taking Silver Linings Playbook from page to screen, Russell embraces some pretty conventional notions about the curative power of family and friends, but he makes that embrace bracing with frenetic editing that puts you inside the heads of his troubled leads.

The performances — including a grounded turn by Jacki Weaver as Pat's mom and a manic one by Chris Tucker as his best friend from the asylum — are this film's chief silver lining. Also a dance sequence that allows the director a subversively bipolar Cinderella joke just before the climax.

There's a ball scene in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, too — one that's figured in more than 20 movie adaptations, so you may think you know it, but it's rarely been quite this theatrical. Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Count Vronsky tells Keira Knightley's Anna that if she won't dance with him, he's "getting out of this operetta" and going home — and with Tom Stoppard penning the screenplay, you know you're meant to hear that word "operetta" in a near-literal sense.

Lush, and literally staged to within an inch of its cinematic life, director Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is built around the premise that life for 19th-century Russian aristocrats was a kind of performance. They looked to Paris for fashion and to the rest of Europe for sophistication; they played their parts in public. So the director places them in a literal theater — sometimes with an actual audience out front. Knightley's Anna argues with stodgy husband Jude Law on what is clearly a stage set — but when she turns her back on this artificial society and steps into the wings, snow is falling and Vronsky is there.

The performances are grand and oversized, with Law's frustrated husband the still center around whom adultery swirls. Everyone but Law moves in elegant, choreographed patterns as stage doors open out onto wheat fields, fireworks explode right through the theater's domed roof, and racing horses gallop across the proscenium stage.

Nothing about this movie is tidy or realistic — it's sweeping and theatrical to suit the story's sweeping, theatrical emotions. And if the inventive imagery the director has come up with distances you a bit from those emotions, he's still made Anna Karenina — in which there's no silver lining for anyone — a wild, gorgeous and flamboyant ride.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In movie theaters in select cities today, two adaptations of novels arrive, the romantic tragedy "Anna Karenina" and the romantic comedy "Silver Linings Playbook." Both are generating Oscar buzz, and both take liberties with their source material, as we hear from our critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the novel "Silver Linings Playbook," Pat, a bipolar guy who's sprung by his mom from a mental institution before he's quite ready, has a theory that his life is a movie produced by God. In David O. Russell's film, God gets left out of the mix. But Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, still has plenty of theories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Pat) This is what I believe to be true. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest. If you stay positive you have a shot at a silver lining.

MONDELLO: Ah, but silver linings come with clouds. Pat is living with his folks because his wife got a restraining order against him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) The court said yes.

MONDELLO: He's a chip off the old block because his dad is obsessive-compulsive, especially when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

ROBERT DI NIRO: (As character) I thought you said you had it together, you were solid.

COOPER: (As Pat) I am solid. I was solid at the game.

MONDELLO: And against the advice of his therapist, Pat is not taking his medication, a point that provides a conversation starter when he meets Tiffany, a recent widow who's just as fragile and formerly medicated as he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

COOPER: (As Pat) Do you ever take klonopin?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Klonopin, yeah.

COOPER: (As Pat) (Unintelligible). What day is it?

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Played by Jennifer Lawrence, Tiffany is working through her own issues by prepping for a dance competition, one that she'll try to rope Pat into, but if that makes her sound like she's got her act together, in many respects she makes Pat seem downright stable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

COOPER: (As Pat) How did you lose your job?

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) By having sex with everybody in the office.

COOPER: (As Pat) Everybody?

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) I was very depressed after Tommy died. It was a lot of people.

COOPER: (As Pat) Well, you don't have to tell me about it.

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Thanks.

COOPER: (As Pat) How many were there?

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) Eleven.

COOPER: (As Pat) Wow.

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) I know.

COOPER: (As Pat) I'm not going to talk about it anymore.

LAWRENCE: (As Tiffany) OK.

COOPER: (As Pat) Can I ask you one more question?

MONDELLO: Writer-director David O. Russell is just the guy to bring out and then calm the manic dysfunction in these folks. That's kind of been his thing in everything from "I Heart Huckabees" to last year's "The Fighter." In taking "Silver Linings Playbook" from page to screen, Russell is embracing some pretty conventional notions about the curative power of family and friends, but he makes that embrace bracing with frenetic editing that puts you inside the heads of his troubled leads, performances that are this film's chief silver lining, and a dance sequence that allows him a niftily bipolar Cinderella joke just before the climax.

There's a ball scene in Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," too, one that has figured in more than 20 movie adaptations, so you may think you know it...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As Count Vronsky) Dance with me.

MONDELLO: But it's rarely been quite this theatrical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Anna) I'm not used to being spoken to like that by a man I met once at a railway station.

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As Count Vronsky) I dare say that if I'm not to dance with you, then (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: This operetta, lush and often specifically on stage, director Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" is built around the premise that life for 19th-century Russian aristocrats was a kind of performance. They looked to Paris for fashion, to the rest of Europe for sophistication; they played their parts in public.

So the director places them in a literal theater, sometimes with an actual audience out front. Keira Knightley's Anna argues with husband Jude Law in front of what is clearly a set...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

JUDE LAW: (As character) (Unintelligible) attracted attention tonight.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Anna) You don't like it when I don't talk to people, you don't like it when I do.

LAW: (As character) (Unintelligible)...

MONDELLO: But when she turns her back on this artificial society and steps into the wings, snow is falling, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky is there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As Vronsky) Can I be of service to you?

KNIGHTLEY: (As Anna) Why are you leaving Moscow?

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As Vronsky) What else can I do? I have to be where you are.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Anna) Stop, that's enough. This is wrong.

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As Vronsky) It makes no difference.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Anna) You have no right.

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As Vronsky) It makes no difference.

MONDELLO: Performances are grand and oversized, with Law's frustrated husband the still center around whom adultery swirls. Everyone but Law moves in elegant, choreographed patterns as stage doors open out onto wheat fields, fireworks explode right through the theater's domed roof, and racing horses gallop across the proscenium arch.

Nothing about this movie is tidy or realistic: it's sweeping and theatrical to suit the story's sweeping, theatrical emotions. And if the inventive imagery the director has come up with distances you a bit from those emotions, he's still made Anna Karenina, in which there's no silver lining for anyone, a wild, gorgeous and flamboyant ride. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.