Silver Linings Playbook
Director : David O. Russell
Screenplay : David O. Russell (based on the novel by Matthew Quick)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Bradley Cooper (Pat Solitano), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), Robert De Niro (Pat Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores), Chris Tucker (Danny), Anupam Kher (Dr. Cliff Patel), John Ortiz (Ronnie), Shea Whigham (Jake), Julia Stiles (Veronica), Paul Herman (Randy), Dash Mihok (Officer Keogh), Matthew Russell (Ricky D’Angelo), Cheryl Williams (Tiffany’s Mother), Patrick McDade (Tiffany’s Father)
Pitched somewhere between the existential screwball comedy of I Heart Huckabees (2004), the experimental whack-job of a film that almost ended his career as a director, and The Fighter (2010), the classically unironic, uplifting drama that resuscitated it to the tune of box office ca-ching and Oscar nominations, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook tows the line of conventional, feel-good Hollywood rom-com, albeit dressed up in just enough art-house quirk to make it feel like something slightly radical. Based on the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook is in many ways the cinematic equivalent of its protagonist’s bipolar disorder, shifting rapidly from off-beat comedy to intensive familial drama, sometimes in the same shot. Russell has worked in this terrain before, particularly in his early films like Flirting With Disaster (1997) and his excellent, vastly underrated Iraq war caper Three Kings (1999), and at times he and his excellent ensemble cast nail the essential thrills and terrors of a life unstable, creating a sense of unfettered humanity that is both compelling and oddly humorous. Yet, throughout the film there is that nagging sense of overlaid quirk that enhances the laughs but also makes it all seem somewhat inauthentic.
Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a former high school history teacher with bipolar disorder who has spent the past eight months in a mental institution because he almost beat his wife’s lover to death after catching them together in the shower. Released into the care of his perpetually patient and understanding mother Delores (Jacki Weaver) and father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), whose obsessive-compulsive disorder is manifest primarily in his obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles and belief that they can win only when certain events are in order, Pat is optimistic (manically, one might say) and resolved to reunite with his wife despite not having heard from her since the “incident” outside of being slapped with a restraining order. He acts out his determination via intensive physical exercise (he jogs 10 miles a day wearing a garbage bag to keep the sweat in) and reading all of the books his wife is teaching to her high school English class (the tragic ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms sets off one of his episodes).
Nikki, Pat’s largely unseen wife, remains a kind of totem, the symbol of Pat’s redemption, which blinds him to virtually everything and everyone around him, including Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow he meets through his best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his humorously icy wife Veronica (Julia Stiles). Like Pat, Tiffany is dealing with significant emotional and mental issues (you know she’s damaged and perhaps even a little bit dangerous via the visual shorthand of her unkempt dark hair and penchant for too much eyeliner). However, she embraces her depression, anger, resentment, and attendant sexual promiscuity with a clear-eyed sense of self. She’s a mess and she knows it and she refuses to apologize for it, which is precisely the opposite of Pat’s manic desire to become the man he thinks Nikki wants him to be. He is as oblivious as she is aware, so it’s little surprise that they are drawn together as a classic romantic odd couple. Tiffany draws Pat close to her by promising to get him in touch with Nikki despite the restraining order, and all she asks in return is that he participate with her in a high-end dance competition. That said dance competition becomes a focal point of the film’s climax is evidence of the film’s overall dramatic conventionality, although the fact that the dance is intertwined with a ridiculous bet Pat Sr. makes on both the competition and a looming Eagles-Cowboys game is a reminder of Russell’s desire to stretch beyond the expected.
When Silver Linings Playbook works, it is largely because the chemistry among the cast members elevates it beyond art-house schtick and makes it work as genuine cathartic drama. Cooper, at times wild-eyed and at other points almost frighteningly focused, provides an excellent center for the film’s off-kilter sense of gravity, and he is nicely balanced by Lawrence’s unsmiling resolve (she is quite amazing in her ability to suggest a flood of emotions behind her character’s impervious face). Both characters are given to fits of emotion, as is Pat Sr., who De Niro makes alternately amusing and perplexing. When everyone is in the room at the same time, the film pops and crackles with energy and vitality, which is why it clunks whenever Russell introduces something or someone who smacks of “quirk.” This is particularly true of Pat’s therapist, Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher), who is not only an awful psychologist, but is later revealed to be an unlikely Philadelphia Eagles superfan willing to throw all his professional ethics out the window, and Chris Tucker, whose rare non-Rush Hour franchise appearance is just kind of distracting. Even with these hiccups, though, the film remains persistently enjoyable from start to finish, although it never reaches any truly manic heights.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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