Impossibly Impossible

No doubt about it, The Impossible is a well crafted film.  The Tsunami is impeccably recreated, the acting is superb, and the script orchestrates intermittent tears with the deftness of a klezmer clarinet.  I hated it.
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Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the filmmaking.  Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) has crafted a remarkably terrifying horror film out of a natural disaster, and he has captured the aftermath with paralyzing clarity and alarming accuracy of detail.  He has harnessed a physical violence no Freddy Kruger film could possibly find.  And that is just what troubles me.

What is the point?  That we should respect and fear Nature?  Okay, I agree.  That tourists should stay away from Thai beach resorts?  What other recourse if you want to avoid the risk of being swept up in this kind of maelstrom?

I wonder if Bayona might have made that point more effectively if he had written more about the aftermath of the ordeal, more about the emotional violence every one of those survivors must surely have suffered in the months, now years, since the tragedy.

This is no Titanic or Ship of Fools with disparate characters thrown together and forced to recognize one another as fellow passengers on a death-bound express.  And therein lies, for me, the rub.

This is one family’s terrifying wrestling match with Fate.  We know precious little about them, and that’s all we need to know. Mom Maria (Naomi Watts)is a non-practicing doctor and Dad Henry(Ewan Macgregor) has a job in Tokyo; she has a hankering to go back to England, and he is ambivalent.  Their three boys Lucas, Simon and Thomas (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast) are pretty typical — entitled, smart, cute.  They make a perfect group to illustrate the blindness of fate; why does this family survive when so many others were so less fortunate?

In perfect horror film cadences, Bayonna lulls his audience into the family’s idyll — not just their vacation in this perceived Phuket paradise but, moreover, the fairy-tale perfect family they embody.  fmp-the-impossibleMaria is beautiful, bright, calm and loving; she soothes her husband’s worry when he gets a text that implies he might fact difficulty at work.  Henry is handsome, intelligent, affectionate; he spends most of the time before the storm playing with and hugging his boys.  Then, knowing the viewers are securely tucked into the family’s Christmas paradise, he dashes them against the  harrowing flying debris — cars, trees, homes, animals, mud — and bloodiness of the tsunami.  The audience reels in the center of the mayhem along with the family as they are torn asunder, roiled in the brine, dashed back to land, remaining on the brink of disaster every minute of the film and until they are, miraculously, reunited and sent flying off to Singapore to begin their happy-ever-aftering.

Which, from where I stand, is where the real struggle will begin.

More than the moment-to-moment endeavor to keep breathing, the life they all move onto will most certainly be fraught with strife that few films, few novels thoroughly investigate: the real struggle for survival, the one that starts after calm returns to the world.  One of the trailers boasts that nothing is more powerful than the human spirit, but in the awful 72-hour wake of the immediate tidal wave, we only see the beginning of the test.

Several times in the course of the film, Bayona’s camera confides the horrors the family witnesses on the way out of mayhem.  We watch, rapt with fear and dread, as Maria comes up from the brown abyss, gasping and moaning.  She sees Lucas, still a self-absorbed child, clinging to flotsam, whining, “Make it stop, Mommy.  I don’t want to be here.”  Then, despite all indications to the contrary, the two manage to connect, and so Lucas begins his fast-forwarded transformation into manhood, while Maria learns to allow herself to be parented by her child.  No doubt about it, the human spirit is boundless, and these two are riveting in their courage.the-impossible06

But then the movie turns quite ordinary, sluggish, boring.  It begins to rely on tear-wrenching moments of great pain and emotion-numbing relief as the rest of the family is recalled to life.  There are some lovely bits — Lucas learns to find solace from his suffering by relieving others’, an old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) bonds with Simon under the stars — but we know how it’s going to end, and after a while we just want them to get on with it already.

The interesting stuff awaits them.  How completely must the nightmare in the water murder all their sleep from now on?  How entirely will the PTSD interfere with their interpersonal relationships?  How will the acrid smell and the visual obscenity of all those rotting dead cast along the shore, the road, the ditches on every inch of each one of their journeys to find one another?  How will their survivor guilt manifest?

Some fine acting has been captured in this movie.  Neither Watts nor Macgregor, who are usually fine, has ever shown more polished chops, and the boys are natural, believable, delightful.  Tom Holland emerges as the real find of the movie — his performance is subtle, nuanced, mature way beyond the actor’s sixteen years.

But how much more could this director have wrung from all that talent if they had had some human opponents to battle.  If, for example, they returned to England and found that no one remembered what they’d been through and just assumed that because they’ve lived, they should be nothing but grateful.  Or if Mom becomes a workaholic because she can’t shake the feeling that if she hadn’t been on so decadent a vacation, one of this would have happened.  If, after the idyll was dispelled, he had taken them back to — horror of horrors! – – real life.

My Personal Silver Linings Playbook

What was your favorite film this year, Carla?”

All over Facebook, my friends are pontificating about and citing personal nominations for this year’s best films. They’re not particularly judicious about it. “You should go back and see that film again,” one told me when I disagreed about a favorite film. “You clearly didn’t get it the first time.” Another, posting ebullient praise for a film that left me speechless with disappointment, concluded, “And if you don’t agree with me, you might as well unfriend me right now because I’m going to have to let you go because you are too unintelligent to be my friend!”

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So  I am here to respond in an equally patronizingly dismissive way, and I hereby declare myself a nominating committee of ONE.

My first action will be to remove most of the awards for anything or anyone involved with the making of Lincoln, with the exception of Tommy Lee Jones for his portrayal of Secretary Seward; I offer neither sycophantic praise for Anne Hathaway as Fantine nor demeaning slurs for Russell Crowe’s Javert in Les Mis; I’d prefer to extinct the film altogether. I would proclaim recognition for elements of Looper, a film I expected to hate but absolutely admired; and I’d add a few superlative categories for Skyfall, since its best elements don’t really fit in any of those that now exist.

In fact, in choosing the Best Film, I’d throw every 2012 movie off the list except for Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. These two pictures could duke it out for ALL the awards; they deserve to be nominated in every existing category and to have new ones invented so more of the work could be honored. These are two pictures that exist in a class by themselves in my personal playbook. But to answer the overwhelming question, “What was your favorite?” No hesitation: Silver Linings Playbook, my candidate for Best Film of 2012.

I am thoroughly prepared to be unfriended by the many zealots who preferred other films; but I was deeply moved by Silver Linings Playbook, and in the end, choosing a front-runner is a subjective, emotionally-driven pursuit.

In a year when there was enough real-life horror and violence to satisfy the most voracious blood lust, SLP offers none, and I admit I am swayed here by my gratitude. Even the fighting, replete with bloodied nose, was understated. This is a film that isn’t concerned with horrifying the audience; it’s there to entertain, and while it entertains, it teaches a bit as well. What a relief.

Never preachy, never sanctimonious, Silver Linings Playbook is that mirror unto nature perfectly positioned so that we behold the human condition. This is a well-told tale about characters who may seem, from time to time, to be strutting and fretting about their stage but who, in fact, are groping along in an earnest quest for happiness. They hurt each other along the way, and they lose themselves in self-centeredness, but these are characters who, despite all the baggage and the damage they’ve incurred from their various pasts, honestly live to love and be happy. They have learned to function in a dysfunctional world and have become, as a result, paragons of dysfunction. And yet they are at heart rational beings who learn what they already intuited, that the only panacea for any of our pain is commitment to one another.

There is no villain in Silver Linings Playbook. When people get hurt, when people violate one another, they do so out of an inability to live up to expectations — their own and others’ — and they fall prey to their own lack of patience. There is no conniving, no evil plotting; and the only weapons they wield are verbal affronts and over-zealous fists. Since there is no villain, there is no hero, not even an anti-hero.

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The protagonist in SLP is neither abundantly good nor adorably bad. He is Pat – Patty to his parents, with whom he lives — Solitano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper), released, at open, from institutionalization for beating up the man he caught naked in the shower with his beloved wife; he is bipolar, a creative thinker fighting his demons every minute of his every day and has no illusions about the effect of drugs and booze in his life. He would be very grateful if he could just remain sober and prove that he is sane and lovable enough to make his estranged wife return to him. Well, that’s what he thinks he wants for most of the film, and what makes the whole thing so very satisfying is the complexity and completeness of his arc, a very palatable arc. When Patty has his epiphany, it happens in a quiet, subtle moment that demonstrates Bradley Cooper’s real chops as an actor and David O. Russell’s ability to find them. Which is something Russell does really well — remember the acting in The Fighter? — for Anupam Kher, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Stiles,Chris Tucker, Jackie Weaver, and the entire Linings cast.weaver-robert-deniro

But nothing he elicits from the other actors comes close to what he gets out of Robert DeNiro, who has, of late, seemed to be trying so hard to make acting a struggle to be way over the top that he’s been making my teeth ache. Here DeNiro is as natural and as believable as he was in Deerhunter. He’s superb in SLP, inhabiting the confused but steadfast Pat Sr., who wants to be paternal but isn’t exactly sure what’s needed from him, what’s expected, even what’s acceptable. He’s funny without reaching for the joke, and he’s poignant without manipulating us toward tears.Deniro

The Solitanos are a troubled family, who succumb to forces we rarely talk about anymore. This is a family that lives in our real world, which wants everyone to act alike, think alike, respond to stimuli in a prescribed manner, and where drugs are omnipresent, revered as magic potions that can erase every little aberration. Patty is constantly being reminded to take his meds, but he hates them, and he has become an inmate in his own private Cuckoo’s Nest, plagued mercilessly by unlikely, unwitting familial Big Nurses. He meets Tiffany, also afflicted with some mental health issues,  who, too, has chosen to eschew the soporific effects of her medications. In one brilliant exchange, the two run through a litany of the drugs they know and despise and the failure of each to be even marginally appeasing. No filmmaker since Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy) has been so lucid in examining the state of the true American drug war, in capturing how the magic pills that promise to make things perfect only succeed in shifting things out of focus.Russell 2

SLP strikes a deeply resonant chord because so many of us, afflicted with social ineptitudes, with anger issues, etc., understand too well the fine line between agitation and insanity, and it elucidates the many ways that parents are disempowered by their grown children while at the same time they are stripping those same kids of their ability to thrive.

In the end, the film is most affecting in that it affirms that the only drug that fixes anything or anyone is love.

That’s a lot to pack into a funny, well-acted, plaintive, beautifully orchestrated, carefully directed film. What an achievement.

The Silver Linings Featurette