A lot goes into creating the “willing suspension of disbelief” needed for an audience to become immersed in a film and experience it — laughter, tears, fear — as “real.” The most important factor? The characters must be believable. In reviewing films to vote for in Film Independent’s Independent Spirit Awards, I watched three films in a row, each of which took a radically different approach to this challenge.
I watched Silver Linings Playbook first. It’s a family drama, comedy, and love story based on the novel by Matthew Quick. Written and directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Flirting with Disaster), it stars Bradley Cooper (Hangover, Limitless), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, X-Men First Class), Robert De Niro (Limitless, Meet the Parents), and Jackie Weaver (Animal Kingdom).
This film reached way down into my psyche. I was born in the midwest, although I was liberated at an early enough age, so I do not refer to the Chicago football team as “da Bears.” Still, the working class characters in Silver Linings Playbook (which takes place in Philadelphia) evoked memories of my aunts, uncles and cousins. De Niro and Weaver especially brought to life characters, flawed, crude, sometimes silly or petty, but always showing love to their family. Director Russell achieves believability by creating unpretentious characters to whom we can relate because their humanity outweighs their flaws.
The characters in Moonrise Kingdom live on the opposite end of the pretentiousness scale. Director Wes Anderson’s (The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Rushmore), Moonrise Kingdom is set on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965. It tells the story of two 12-year-olds who fall in love, make a secret pact and run away together into the wilderness. As authorities try to find them, a violent storm threatens and the peaceful island community is turned upside down.
Unlike the uninhibited sharing of emotions we receive from Russell’s characters, Anderson directs his actors to hold it back. Bruce Willis plays the local sheriff, Edward Norton is a scout leader, and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand portray the young girl’s parents. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play the boy and girl.
Everything is underplayed. As I watched it, I found myself thinking, “I remember 1965. We laughed and showed emotions back then.” Even though New England is supposedly a lot more reserved than the Southern California where I chased girls in 1965, and certainly some individuals are totally reserved, I don’t believe everyone on that New England island could have been that much of an introvert.
I shared my reaction with my daughter, who is even more of a film nerd than I am, and she defended the portrayals. “That’s the way Wes Anderson always directs his actors.” Maybe so, but they did not seem real to me. Despite the direction, Bruce Willis was great as always and newcomers Gilman and Hayward were charming.
Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, tells the story of a mortician who strikes up a peculiar and questionable friendship with a wealthy widow. It takes a third approach to creating believable characters; one I’ve never seen before.
I missed a chance to see Bernie at SXSW — the line went around the block because Jack Black was scheduled to appear. I started watching the film without any background information on it, assuming it would be a crazy Jack Black comedy.
We meet Black’s character, Bernie the mortician, a New Orleans transplant, working in a little town in east Texas. The dramatic events that move the story forward are interspersed with documentary style interviews with townspeople. As I watched the interviews, I became puzzled. “Either these are some of the best darn character actors I’ve ever seen,” I thought, “or Linklater has used real people. They’re so real.”
They were real. Bernie combines drama with documentary. The opening titles did say “Based on a True Story,” but, having seen lots of “true” stories, that didn’t sink in. This is a unique creation. It’s not a history channel docu-drama and not a straight biography. It finds a middle ground that uses reality to give verisimilitude to it’s actors’ portrayals. Linklater has invented something new.
The closing titles give us a peek at photos of the real Bernie and the rich-widow. Casting Black and MacClaine in these roles was genius. I thought
McConaughey’s portrayal of the local DA was a little broad, but he’s from Texas and I’m not.
Should you see these films? If you’re a future movie maker, see them and take notes; it’ll’ save you a least three months of film school. Silver Linings Playbook is excellent in every way and it will get my vote for best feature. Even though I have problems with Wes Anderson’s directing style, Moonrise Kingdom is a good story and the cinematography is striking. However, if you consider Boy Scouts and religion to be positive aspects of our culture, you may be offended. I never connected with the character of Bernie, but the film held my interest to the end.
The Independent Spirit Awards will be broadcast on IFC on February 23, 10 PM, ET/PT.