With The Fighter, director David O. Russell seemed to carve out a niche for off-beat dramedy centered around eccentric blue-collar characters - and his new film, Silver Linings Playbook is clear evidence that he’s getting more comfortable in said niche. The story is set in and around the area of Philadelphia, PA and follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) an ex-teacher who is coming home from an institution after suffering a nervous breakdown. Pat is sprung (prematurely) by his ever-patient mom (Jacki Weaver) but his dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), isn’t so certain the homecoming is justified – on account of Pat Jr.’s constant petulance and the continued delusion that his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), is still in love with him.
But when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl who has recently suffered a similar psychological break, it starts up a most unusual courtship between two damaged people – which might just be the silver lining that each of them (and their loved ones) have been hoping for.
[DISCLAIMER: This review was written by a native Philadelphian and life-long Eagles fan. You've been warned.]
Silver Linings Playbook is another hit for David O. Russell and further proof that he is settling into a style of filmmaking that serves him (and his audience) well. Rusell both directed and wrote the script (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick), and he manages to do for romantic comedy what he did for sports drama in The Fighter - namely, by upending conventions via smart, well-executed, scenes that are heavy on sharp dialogue, uttered from the mouths of amusing oddball characters. And, while the film sometimes feels as lost as its two protagonists, the moment-to-moment joy of each scene never really subsides or sags, and the uncertainty of the destination just as often works as an advantage, rather than a hindrance.
The film succeeds in large part because of its cast, who are all able to take Russell’s unique tonal frequency and bring it to life in a convincing and entertaining way. Bradley Cooper is all manic charm as Pat Jr., and manages to strike the difficult balance of a character who is delusional without being tragic or sad; awkward and aloof without being too off-putting or annoying. What we get is a protagonist worth rooting for, despite his obvious shortcomings, and the role requires Cooper to (thankfully) shed a lot of his usual smarmy mannerisms – which he does effectively.
Cooper’s performance might be noteworthy, but Jennifer Lawrence’s is spectacular. The young actress (who already has an Oscar nomination under her belt for Winter’s Bone, and breakout success thanks to The Hunger Games) continues to prove she’s one of the strongest thespians of her generation. In Tiffany, she creates a deeply-layered and interesting character that is attractive yet also sympathetically vulnerable and frighteningly volatile. After suffering a breakdown due to her cop husband’s untimely death, Tiffany (like Pat) is looking for a road back to some semblance of sanity – and, like Pat, has little idea how to actually go about it. Where Pat is a repeating chord of self-delusion, Tiffany oscillates between levels of sane and insane behavior rapidly and unpredictably; Lawrence controls these shifts with such skill and subtlety that it’s unnervingly convincing in the best possible way.
Robert De Niro turns in what might be his best performance in years as Pat Sr., a life-long Philadelphia Eagles fan whose sports superstitions boarder on OCD – and whose “friendly wagers” with bookie friend Randy (Paul Herman) boarder on compulsive gambling. Like his co-stars, De Niro is able to walk a fine tightrope of characterization, so that Pat Sr. seems tough while still loving, compulsive but not reckless, etc. It’s a mix of De Niro’s tough-guy Italian persona from his mob films (Casino) set to the comedic sensibilities of his family films (Meet the Fockers) and it all works wonderfully. If ever there was a true portrait of an old Eagles fan, this is it.
The rest of the cast is made up of talented actors playing characters that rank as slightly less strange than Pat and/or Tiffany. Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) is the calm center of the Solitano family, but her acceptance (enablement?) of all the craziness around her is a form of craziness in and of itself. Chris Tucker returns to the screen for the first time in five years and is a scene-stealer as Danny, Pat’s friend from the institution who routinely escapes for a friendly visit. Julia Stiles cameos as Veronica, Tiffany’s older sister who lives like she’s QVC royalty – much to the chagrin of her husband Ronnie (Public Enemies‘ John Ortiz), Pat’s p-whipped old friend who is quietly sitting on a volcano of repressed emotion. Even minor characters like Pat’s therapist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), his successful brother Jake (Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Whigham) and probation officer Keogh (Dash Mihok) are given moments to show off their own colorful personalities while earning a few laughs.
On a more subtle level, Silver Linings Playbook gets inside the skin of blue-collar life in the same way The Fighter did. Trade the New England setting of the latter film for the Philadelphia setting of this one, and you still get a sense of Russell’s fascination with the world of working-class America and the people who inhabit it. It’s not quite satire, not quite endorsement, but rather lies somewhere in between; a good-humored morbid curiosity that entertains, but just as often mortifies. It is a balance that Russell seems to have mastered, and so far, it has resulted in rewarding film experiences.
The movie begins to drag in the latter second act – and after taking such a leisurely pace to get where it’s going, the climax feels a bit rushed and very cliched. Still, with these sort of Russell films it is more about the pleasure of the journey than the satisfaction fo the destination, and Silver Linings Playbook paves a highly entertaining road to recovery for its characters, which you will be glad you helped sponsor.
Silver Linings Playbook is now expanding to additional theaters.It is Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity