Who is that sweet, nice, very pretty young junkie in Flight? I don’t mean the actress, Kelly Reilly, but the character, who takes shape before Denzel Washington’s bloodshot eyes like the materialized spirit of mercy sex, or the Serenity Prayer made flesh. Is she for real? And the sweet, nice, very pretty young girlfriend that Bella Heathcote plays in David Chase’s Not Fade Away—does she have a life of her own? Or does she exist solely in the mind of the semiautobiographical protagonist: a teenage rock musician in 1960s New Jersey who overflows with so many aches and pretensions, enthusiasms and self-righteous cruelties that the more fully he’s drawn, the more the girlfriend looks like nothing but a pair of cheekbones glimpsed in a dream.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked Flight some and Not Fade Away a lot. I just got worried, more than ten months into 2012, that Oscar voters might not be able to come up this year with five nominations for Best Actress, given that two of the better leading roles were played by a suit of armor (thrown onto Kristen Stewart this past summer in Snow White and the Huntsman) and a configuration of pixels (drawn to accompany Kelly Macdonald’s voice in Brave).
Then came Skyfall, and my mind was put at ease. In a late-year picture that ordinary moviegoers really cared about, with good reason, Judi Dench’s M rivaled Daniel Craig’s James Bond in screen time and easily outdid him in complexity of motive. Dench even got to recite a few lines of Tennyson between the shootouts, adding to the massacre a musicality that has been hers alone since John Gielgud died. Never mind that the ultimate goal of Skyfall was to reboot the franchise’s latest reboot, returning the patently middle-aged Craig to the condition of the prefeminist Bond. By making M the center of its narrative, Skyfall reaffirmed the possibility that female characters may have an independent purpose and sometimes even a job—a potential further realized, as the holiday season began, by Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina, Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, though not so much by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
Of all these actresses, Lawrence deserves pride of place. Having distinguished herself earlier in the year in one of the current cinema’s biggest fairy-tale roles for women (Katniss, in The Hunger Games), she has now made herself funny, liberating and equally big as a real-world character—one who lacks all sparkle (even Lawrence’s hair is dark for this movie) and so suffers a little for being named Tiffany.
Silver Linings Playbook, written and directed by David O. Russell, puts Lawrence into a more or less recognizable version of lower-middle-class Philadelphia and has her cope with difficulties not unknown to mortals: widowhood, a history of psychiatric treatment, a shortage of cash (Tiffany lives behind her parents’ house, in what used to be their garage) and a chastened idea of what she can expect in life. At best, Tiffany aspires to enter an annual dance contest and rise to a mediocre score. Aiming similarly low with men, she hopes to engage the attention, or friendship, or at least cooperation as a dance partner, of a neighborhood disturbance named Pat (Bradley Cooper)—a guy who also lives with his parents, having just secured provisional release from a psychiatric hospital.
Silver Linings Playbook is set up to be Pat’s story more than Tiffany’s. It starts and finishes with his voiceover; it dwells on his problems with uncontrolled rage and magical thinking (he believes that if he just acts cheerful enough, his wife will lift the restraining order and come back to him, despite his having beaten her lover almost to death); and when he first encounters Tiffany, at a hilariously ill-managed dinner party, the movie views her directly through his eyes, as a series of disconnected stolen glances at legs, lips and cleavage. Soon enough, though, a whole woman comes together from these partial views and proves to be more than Pat’s equal.