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Toronto Days 4 and 5: Jennifer Lawrence and The Master

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 9, 2012 05:51 PM

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Silver Linings Playbook.jpgGiven the weight and length and scope of some of the movies here – there, for instance, is a five-plus hour Indian crime spectacular called "Gangs of Wassypur" – it's easy to overlook the small, the intimate, the deathless, the funny. It's possible to see a movie like David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" and forget to tell people about it. Not because it's forgettable (it's not), but because gluttony sometimes mean you can't remember what you've seen five minutes ago. It's scheduled for release later this year, so there will be time to spread the word that Russell is officially the movies' most instinctive director of ensemble comedies. After "I Heart Huckabees," his movies have become increasingly sane (his last was "The Fighter"), but a trace of relatable mental instability runs through even those movies.

The new film actually begins with Bradley Cooper leaving a Philadelphia mental hospital and refusing to take the medication prescribed to prevent him from going back. He's prone to violent anger and convinced that his estranged adulterous wife is still in love with him. It's a delusion that his prickly new friendship with an oversexed, equally unstable woman (Jennifer Lawrence) – the sister of his wife's best friend – only heightens. These two get acquainted at a small dinner, and in one of at least half a dozen beautifully written exchanges, they bond over pharmaceuticals in front their two unmedicated companions. What ultimately happens between them is expected. But nothing that keeps them together, not the bargains they strike, the fights they have, the lies they tell, or the cruel honesty they inflict upon each other – none of that is ordinary or predictable. Only with Russell is mutual and collective dysfunction the surest path to bliss.

For 20 minutes, I found it strange to be in the Philadelphia area and hear no one say "warter." Robert De Niro is a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic but always sounds like a man rooting against the Eagles at Giants Stadium. Like me, Cooper grew up in Philadelphia. He uses the mildest of accents. But it doesn't take long for the magic of this movie's wit to hit the spot that cries out for pleasing bitterness. It's wonderful to hear what Cooper and Lawrence can do with great dialogue (the movie is based on Matthew Quick's novel) and complicated feelings, what they can do as part of a larger comedy team. This one includes a hale, in-rare-form De Niro as Cooper's obsessive-compulsive gambler father, Jacki Weaver as an enabling mother and wife, Paul Herman, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher, and Chris Tucker. Most of these people wind up shouting in an extended dining-room climax that features sports stats and emotional stakes. Watching it, you appreciate that that the six- or seven-way blowup means as much to Russell as car chases meant to John Frankenheimer.

Some of the movie depends on coincidences (characters showing up at the same Eagles game) and conveniences (unlocked doors), stuff that sitcoms rely on. I suspect Russell knows this and doesn't care. He's focused on the bigger picture and fortunately there always is one with him. The more mature he gets as filmmaker (he's 54) the less afraid he is of straightforward human connection. I might prefer his screwballs a little screwier. But it felt good watching this movie with a crowded house that was as eager as ever to connect to him.

The Master.jpgPeople here are even more desperate to connect to Paul Thomas Anderson. Based on sheer word of mouth, the movie people here are most desperate to see, even though it opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and in Boston and other major cities the following week, is "The Master." I waited in line for 55 minutes to see its public North American premiere on Friday. The queue was hilariously long, and by the time I got to my seat Anderson had already finished his introduction and the lights had just gone down. The theater was currently staging a production of "War Horse." I trust the acoustics are kinder to the show than to Anderson's movie. It was like listening to a play through a barrel. Worse, I sat next to a woman who spent the entire movie checking the time on her phone and talking to her neighbor. I would have found another seat, but there wasn't one. Plus, I was exhausted with anticipation. This is Anderson's first movie in five years, and the wait had wiped me out.

I walked out of the theater 137 minutes later afraid that I hadn't really seen it – or even heard it, for that matter. So I woke up this morning and tried again. The venue was the festival's Lightbox, which is where you'd like to see any movie but particularly one that was shot on 70mm, as "The Master" was. I'm writing about the film when it opens in Boston on the 21st, so I'll wait to argue for its magnificence. The point of mentioning any of this is that I thought the clamoring to see it over the weekend (there were two more screenings) would have ebbed by Monday (seriously, it opens in at least two weeks!). But it was worse. A colleague actually used me to cut ahead in line and avoid the dread of not getting a seat (she can go on it Friday!). "I feel like I'm the last person on Earth to see this movie," she told me, further exasperating the woman she'd cut in front of. Clearly, that's how everybody in this line felt.

What I'll say for now is that Anderson is America's best working filmmaker; that, in an increasingly digitized age, this movie is an inspired defense of old-fashioned, shot-on-film moviemaking; and that I hope its mysteries stay with me for a long time. I knew already the first part. But I don't know that I would have been able to articulate the last two without a second viewing. Please, moviegoers of the world, turn your phones off.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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