Maybe we had overly high expectations going into John Carter, given the charisma of its leading man, the stellar track record of director Andrew Stanton, and the cult status of the source material. Suffice to say though, that while a solid movie, John Carter is not the groundbreaking science-fiction epic that we had been hoping for.
Bradley Cooper plays the volatile, vulnerable Pat, a man who's been thoroughly felled by heartbreak, rage and bipolar disorder. He convinces his loving mom Dolores (Jacki Weaver) that he's ready to leave the mental institution and return home to be with his family, including his football-obsessed dad Pat Sr (Robert De Niro). But all Pat can think about is his ex-wife Nikki (Brea Bee), the reason he suffered a mental breakdown in the first place. Then he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with her own emotional baggage who offers him the opportunity to reconnect with Nikki... but only if he'll help her out too.
To his credit, Russell manages to make his off-kilter, occasionally deeply unlikeable characters work, and they are the best part of the entire film. He gently teases out what offbeat humour there is in Pat's situation, without sacrificing character development or complexity. A lesser writer would have turned Pat's problems - his rage and restraining order - into adorable quirks that can be easily dismissed the moment a hint of new love enters his life. In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat remains resolutely, almost grimly real, inching towards recovery more out of necessity than choice.
The trouble is that the different elements of the film just don't quite add up to a coherent whole. The movie spends too much of its running time teetering uncomfortably between comedy and drama - and, as a result, never really succeeds as either. It can't comfortably lead us down into a dark abyss of melodrama, and yet laughing too hard at Pat's genuinely deep-seated emotional problems feels wrong too. By the time the ending rolls around, it feels like a moment out of a completely different film - one in which logic, character and depth don't matter as much as they have in the rest of the movie.
Where Russell's film succeeds unreservedly is in its excellent cast. Cooper is cursed as much as well-served by his good looks, but here he proves that he can dominate the screen with a performance at once touching and disturbing. Lawrence is so assured as Tiffany that her 16-year age gap with Cooper is barely noticeable. It's nice to see De Niro thoroughly enjoying himself as well. His career has taken a pretty questionable turn in the past decade, but he's fantastic here as Pat's superstitious, obsessive-compulsive father - a delightful, kooky counterpoint to his son, and a reminder that the difference between 'crazy' and normal people is sometimes just a clinical diagnosis.
Summary: A curious romantic comedy that's equal parts gritty, awkward and desperately sad.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars