From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]borderstan.com.
Two Oscar- contending movies have been in theaters for a couple of weeks, entering without a whole lot of fanfare. They are relatively quiet films that deal with characters who have sought to solve problems through therapy rather than the more dramatic measures, like murder or suicide, that influence voters in the movie award sweepstakes.
In The Sessions, a thirty five year-old man, played by John Hawkes, seeks relief from his virginal, partially paralyzed state. He receives it, and in many ways beyond sheer physical sensation, through the ministrations of a sexual therapist played by Helen Hunt.
In Silver Linings Playbook two disturbed and angry characters, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, engage in patter about the psycho-tropic drugs in their first meeting as they embark on a combative relationship.
I found The Sessions extremely affecting, partly because John Hawkes does a marvelous job of acting from a prone position. Yet we can imagine his inner position as our own — with its neediness, but also with its anxious, self-deflecting humor. Equally important is the exquisitely nuanced performance of Helen Hunt, who brings a clinical coolness to her work — as well as a superbly conditioned body that, is unafraid of frontal nudity.
My partner in movie-going got it right when he remarked, “Movies that proclaim themselves about love are frequently just about sex. The Sessions proclaims itself about sex, but it is really about love.” The whole thing left me happy and in tears.
Silver Linings Playbook did not have that sublime effect, but it’s not that kind of movie. It’s a comedy, loud in every way, but especially in the aggressions of its two main characters. I’ve often wondered about the appeal of Bradley Cooper, who was named “Sexiest Man of the Year” by People magazine in 2011.
He has seemed just another, run-of-the-mill movie actor to me. That’s why his performance, especially in the opening minutes of Silver Linings was so surprising. Cooper digs into his role, conveying the aggressive optimism of a man recovering from a break-down with all kinds of physical gestures and tics.
I had admired Jennifer Lawrence, who plays his companion nut-case (using the idiom of the working-class Philadelphia that is the setting for this film) from her fine performance in Winter’s Bone (2010). But I worried that her freshness might fade after her deserved success as Katness Everdeen in last year’s blockbuster Hunger Games. Her performance in Silver Linings settled my fears, for she enacts a fearless friendship that helps Cooper out of his mania. The play between the two is funny and serious at the same time.
There are several laughs along the way to a happy ending in the story of Silver Linings Playbook. Robert De Nero finally turns in a nuanced performance as a worried father, after his over-played venture into fatherhood in the Focker movie series. He and a number of surrounding characters — all trying to be helpful in their ways — exhibit the crazy obsessions of ordinary people.
Their kind of comedy is needed because no movie could sustain the tension of Cooper’s opening monologue for long without some kind of relief, and Silver Linings is a comedy, after all.
Karen Horney, a psycho-therapist from the last century, was humble enough to insist that “Life is the best therapy… when it works.” Each of these movies gives evidence of the truth and the hopefulness of that observation. So even though neither features elves or miracles, each seems to me to embody the spirit of this season. If you want a happy movie for the holidays, then, go see The Sessions or Silver Linings Playbook.