The upcoming awards season begs the comparison between these two indie films that continue to garner Golden Globe and Oscar buzz nationwide. So here goes -- for all its forced zaniness, Silver Linings Playbook is a formulaic love story and for all its genuine oddity, The Sessions is a classic.
Don't get me wrong, Silver Linings Playbook is very appealing and hits every mark. The two A-list stars -- Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence -- are incredibly likeable and provide a great sexual chemistry; the trailer should read "Mental Illness Is Hot Again!" The pair do a great job playing their parts but fail, however, to transcend them. And their story follows a kind of Indie Mad lib scenario:
Hero with ______ (quirky handicap) with a passion for _______ (quirky sports team) returns home to live with _____ (quirky family members) accompanied by ______ (quirky sidekick, preferably of another ethnicity) to overcome _____ (quirky court order that threatens to undo him/her) and meets ______ (quirky girl) with her own ____ (quirky issues) and together they will conquer a _____ (quirky Little Miss Sunshine-like) contest.
This film has is replete with indie requisite terrible home décor (heinous floral wallpaper) requisite local cop with heart of gold, (Dash Mihok) requisite local flavor (crabby snacks and homemades) and requisite Glee come-from-behind-and-win finale.
Silver Linings Playbook is satisfying for what it is but it never stops being a movie.
The Sessions, on the other hand, starts in one place and ends somewhere else entirely.
Based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, a 36-year-old writer and poet whose polio confined him to an iron lung for 20 hours a day, we join John Hawkes as he presents O'Brien's search for a sexual life. The film (as does his penis) quite literally jumps to life when sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Green, played by Helen Hunt, enters the bedroom and takes off from there. As O'Brien follows his path for sexual fulfillment and Cheryl veers off of hers as she falls in love with her patient we see and learn something new -- that life can take your breath away.
The supporting cast -- especially Moon Bloodgood as O'Brien's health aide and William H. Macy as his hip priest -- aren't doing cameo scene steals but instead become vital parts of this journey and shine as members of a community of understanding, humor and compassion. Berkeley in the late 1980's becomes a sort of an indie parallel universe. You leave with a nostalgic longing for the better world these characters inhabit.
John Hawkes' performance is right up there with Daniel Day Lewis' in Lincoln in how he seamlessly owns his character as he pulls off the herculean task of winning hearts almost literally without moving a muscle. Helen Hunt brings a light beam of benevolent energy that perfectly mirrors the confidence and soul of the therapist she portrays. She is naked, not nude, and her deft explanations of how two bodies can come together without a trace of self-consciousness is a wonder to behold. Hawkes, in turn, becomes a man worthy of desire despite the pale, tortured little body that holds his magnificent soul.
It's a cinematic pas de deux as she teaches him how to have sex and he teaches her how to be intimate. Both performances have a confidence of intent that is quietly shattering.
See the difference? In Silver Linings Playbook there are two very likeable stars with a positive energy -- playing very difficult people but not quite succeeding, they're both just too darling. You never forget these are two people doing a good job of pretending to be something they aren't.
In The Sessions we have two actors embodying roles so effortlessly that they jump the disconnect that they really aren't these two strange people after all - they become them, and us -- and that's movie making as art.