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Schultz reviews: ‘Spenser Confidential’ & ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Schultz reviews: ‘Spenser Confidential’ & ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

 

“Spenser Confidential” Distributed by Netflix, 111 Minutes, Rated R, Released March 6 and streaming now on Netflix:

 

Author Robert B. Parker wrote some 40 mystery novels featuring the fictional Boston private detective known as Spenser (no first name was ever officially revealed). A tough-as-nails, smart-mouthed ex-boxer with the requisite heart of gold, Spenser developed such a loyal fan base that following Parker’s 2010 death of a heart attack at age 77, the author’s estate elected to continue the Spenser series with another writer, and chose Florida-based former newspaper investigative journalist Ace Atkins to carry on the legacy.

 

Published in 2013, the second of Atkins’ Spenser novels, officially titled “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland,” provides the foundation for the new Netflix movie “Spenser Confidential.” Not that you’d ever know it from the picture’s plot.

 

Adapted by movie freshman Sean O’Keefe with an assist from veteran screenwriter Brian Helgeland, in “Spenser Confidential,” former Boston police sergeant Spenser is released from prison after serving a five-year stretch for beating up his captain, and suddenly finds himself a suspect in the captain’s murder by machete that same day. But when a former colleague also turns up dead and is conveniently framed for the captain’s messy demise, Spenser’s police instincts are aroused, and he begins to seek answers in the case ... in the process ruffling all the wrong feathers.

 

Bearing little more than a superficial resemblance to author Robert B. Parker’s Spenser character, and even less of a resemblance to the story’s credited source novel, ”Spenser Confidential” is obviously deliberately tailored to the narrow sensibilities of its star (and co-producer) Mark Wahlberg. At age 48, Wahlberg is getting a bit long in the tooth for the wall-to-wall non-stop fight scenes and action sequences required of this sort of thing. And he seems to know it.

 

Luckily, director Peter Berg in his fifth motion picture collaboration with Wahlberg (after 2013’s “Lone Survivor,” 2016’s “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriot’s Day,” and “Mile 22” in 2018) is on hand, and knows from experience how to set up a scene in a way to allow the star to breeze in with minimal effort and do what he does best — alternately seem either driven and obsessed or as naive and innocent as a choirboy, deliver a punch or a quip, and then get out of the way as quickly as possible and let the stuntman step in and take over.

 

Still, “Spenser Confidential” is fun in a mindless and undemanding kind of way, mostly resembling 1980s comedy action fare such as the “Lethal Weapon” pictures ... particularly the later films in the series, when plots took a backseat to personalities and the pictures became little more than elaborate home movies for its stars. “Spenser Confidential” is entertaining enough — just don’t expect too much logic or reason, especially during the preposterous final half hour, when the last remains of any viable credibility go out the window in favor of a big, splashy wrap-up.

 

“Spenser Confidential” contains performances from a solid Winson Duke as Spenser’s perennial sidekick Hawk, Iliza Shlesinger as Spenser’s foul-mouthed and abrasive girlfriend Cissy, Bokeem Woodbine as a former colleague on the force, Michael Gaston in flashback sequences as the late Captain Boylan, and 86-year-old Alan Arkin as Spenser’s landlord Henry Cimoli. Arkin seems to be performing an Alan Arkin imitation, kvetching and complaining and occasionally delivering addled homespun wisdom. That’s tattooed rap artist Post Malone, incidentally, as Spenser’s tattooed Aryan nation prison nemesis.

 

The character of Spenser was also the basis for “Spenser: For Hire,” a popular television series starring actor Robert Urich as Spenser and Avery Brooks as Hawk, which ran on the ABC network from 1985 until 1988. After its cancellation, “Spenser: For Hire” spawned four follow-up television movies, as well as a short-lived spinoff series, “A Man Called Hawk,” also starring Brooks, which ran for 13 episodes in early 1989.

 

Filmed on location in Spenser’s (and Wahlberg’s) home turf in Boston and containing a distracting soundtrack of peripheral grunge-rock music, “Spenser Confidential” is rated R for constant violence and language concerns, and one “funny” sex scene in a restaurant lavatory.

 

...and one classic from the vault, now streaming on the internet:

 

“Silver Linings Playbook” Distributed by The Weinstein Company, 122 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 16, 2012:

 

Sharp and insightful writing, sensitive and intelligent direction, three-dimensional characters, a perfect cast, and a thoroughly unlikely subject for comedy combine to produce one of the most original and heartwarming motion pictures of recent times in “Silver Linings Playbook.” This modestly-budgeted little gem of a picture was released without fanfare in 2012 just in time for the holiday season, and is available for viewing on DVD or Blu-ray, or streaming on a computer or television.

 

Set in Philadelphia — the City of Brotherly Love is practically another character in the picture — in “Silver Linings Playbook” Pat Solitano is released into the custody of his middle-aged parents from involuntary commitment to a Baltimore mental health facility after receiving eight months’ clinical treatment for his bipolar disorder. The young man was sentenced to hospital confinement after savagely attacking his wife’s lover when discovering them together in the shower of their suburban home.

 

Obsessed with a desire to contact his estranged wife and attempt a reconciliation despite a restraining order preventing him from doing just that, Pat finds emotional support from an unexpected source — Tiffany Maxwell, a tough-talking young widow recovering from a nervous breakdown following the death of her husband in a traffic accident. Tiffany promises to deliver a personal note from Pat to his estranged wife through her older sister, the wife’s best friend.  

 

The catch? Before delivering the letter, Tiffany requires Pat to agree to perform as her partner in a prestigious annual dance competition — an event requiring weeks of physical conditioning, choreography, and rehearsal together until achieving perfection in their performance routine. And that’s just the beginning of the complications.

 

Adapted with obvious affection from Matthew Quick’s premiere 2008 novel and directed with skill and heart by filmmaker David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook” seemingly came out of nowhere and became 2012’s most unexpected hit. The picture boosted actor Bradley Cooper to major Hollywood stardom from his popularity as a light presence in action films and comedies ... and caused the entire country to fall in love with 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, the wounded and fragile but single-minded and determined young widow who challenges Pat to aspire to a more fulfilling life.

 

As the bipolar Pat, Bradley Cooper seems to find the key to his performance in playing the role with clinical accuracy, but never begging sympathy from the audience. The talented Cooper climbs inside his sometimes-unsympathetic character and allows a sort of natural empathy and affectionate laughter to flow freely from the contrived situations in which the troubled Pat is placed, as well as his outrageous — and outrageously honest — reactions. Despite the frequently contrived circumstances the character inhabits, the sum total of the performance feels a lot like real life ... and a better understanding of the difficulties faced by those of us who endure mental health challenges.

 

And as the troubled young widow, young Jennifer Lawrence, then on the cusp of stardom as a result of her appearance as heroine Katniss Everdeen in the high-profile 2012 motion picture adaptation of the best-selling science fiction novel “The Hunger Games,” delivers in “Silver Linings Playbook” a performance with strong parallels to then-24-year-old Shirley MacLaine’s endearing (and star-making) Academy Award-nominated appearance as the self-destructive young elevator operator in 1960’s “The Apartment.”

 

Like MacLaine — and like Cooper — Lawrence never asks sympathy from the audience ... but breaks the viewer’s heart anyway. Funny, human, vulnerable, warm, and sexy, the young actress’ naturally indomitable spirit shines through in the picture and its often maudlin situations, and Lawrence steals every scene in which she appears ... no mean feat when playing off the old pros and professional scene-stealers populating the picture’s supporting cast. The audience’s eye is naturally drawn to the actress — the very definition of a movie star. And Jennifer Lawrence’s every line of dialogue in “Silver Lining’s Playbook” becomes a highlight of the picture.

 

The stellar supporting cast of “Silver Linings Playbook” includes such formidable talents as standup comic Chris Tucker in a surprisingly adept performance as Pat’s friend and fellow patient at the Baltimore mental health facility, Julia Stiles as Tiffany’s controlling older sister, and the wonderfully sympathetic John Ortiz as her put-upon husband. Veteran actress Jacki Weaver earned an Academy Award nomination for her role as Pat’s loving, patient, and understanding mother. And in a cast of stars, Indian superstar Anupam Kher is a real standout as Pat’s wise and unflappable psychiatrist.

 

The legendary Robert De Niro in a rare comedy appearance as Pat’s sports-obsessed illegal bookmaker father works harder than he has in years just to keep up with the rest of the picture’s talented young players. With his character’s eccentricities, foibles, superstitions, and compulsive behavior, De Niro as Pat Senior ironically — and hilariously — often seems even more manic and obsessive than his bipolar son. The seasoned actor’s real highlight in the picture — his almost unbearably funny face off with Lawrence’s Tiffany on the subject of “juju.”

 

Released Nov. 16, 2012, with very little advance publicity or advertising to only 16 theaters in major cities across the United States, “Silver Linings Playbook” earned impressive box office amounts despite strong competition from heavyweights like Steven Spielberg’s historical epic “Lincoln” and the James Bond picture “Skyfall.” And unusually strong word-of-mouth began to build.  

 

Throughout the following month, the distributor continually expanded the picture’s release pattern until Jan. 18 “Silver Linings Playbook” was in a full wide release in 2,523 North American venues. By mid-February, box office earnings passed the $100 million mark — the standard definition of a hit picture — and eventually topped out at over $236 million.

 

A genuine sleeper hit, “Silver Linings Playbook” has become a comedy classic, and a rare R-rated holiday favorite. As dysfunctional, flawed, and confused as the movie’s Solitano family and their friends appear, you might catch yourself wishing your own family and friends could be more like them — the distinction is the obvious love and support its members express for each other. Tough love is still love, and with each word and gesture, the sometimes addled and short-tempered Solitano clan demonstrates an unbreakable emotional bond ... no matter that their affection is sometimes bellowed in rage.  

 

As all the plots and all the characters come together for the dance competition which provides the setting of the picture’s climactic 30-minute set piece, “Silver Linings Playbook” successfully creates the sustained lunacy of a Marx Bros. classic, and the bipolar Pat becomes the family’s solitary source of stability. Despite the delighted laughter which results from the extended scene, you might well find yourself also wiping a tear from your eye. And boy, can Cooper and Lawrence dance!

 

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning one in the Best Actress category for the wonderfully funny performance of Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook” is rated R for language concerns and adult situations, including brief nudity. The picture is currently streaming on Netflix.

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