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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

Hollywood doesn't always have a great track record when it comes to depicting mental illness, often resorting to playing it as a "quirk" to be mined for comedy, or as something completely dark and debilitating, prime material for high drama. Rarely is mental illness depicted with any real degree of complexity and nuance - there's "crazy" and there's "movie crazy" and the latter tends to play better cinematically - and though Silver Linings Playbook is a comedy, it takes its subject matter very seriously. It offers a deft mix of comedy and drama, of plot-based and character-based story, and is highly entertaining.

Silver Linings Playbook begins with Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), eight months into his court appointed treatment in a mental health facility, being released into the care of his parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro). Pat, who suffers from bipolar disorder and ended up in the institution after a violent episode in which he caught his wife with another man, is determined to get himself into shape, both physically and mentally, to get his wife back. His parents worry about his obsession with his ex-wife, who has a restraining order against him, but he truly believes that this is just a bump in the road which will lead to reconciliation. At dinner with friends, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow and no stranger to mental problems herself, and the two begin to develop a friendship based lagrely on Pat's idea that he might be able to communicate with his wife through Tiffany. Tiffany agrees to help him, but her help comes at a price.

Tiffany is determined to participate in a local dance competition but needs a partner and though Pat is reluctant, he ultimately agrees to dance with her in exchange for her help with his wife. The two begin a rigorous training regimen, and grow closer in the process, which becomes a new concern for his parents. Pat Sr. feels he isn't spending enough time with his potentially wayward son but, more importantly, he worries that his son's absence on Sundays is having an adverse effect on the performance of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Although Pat Jr. is officially the family's "crazy one," his father isn't much better, obsessively cataloguing superstitions to employ to help his team pull through. The two narrative threads converge when Pat Sr. makes an insane bet which relies on the performance of both the Eagles and of Pat Jr. and Tiffany in the dance competition. If either fails to pull through, Pat's parents will lose everything.

Written and directed by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook unfolds in a sometimes manic, sometimes messy, but ultimately very touching way. On one level it's a romantic comedy about two misfits, only one of whom realizes that they belong together while the other goes out of their way to avoid having to acknowledge it. On another level, it's a family drama about a man struggling to get a handle on his mental illness, and his parents struggling along with him, wanting to be supportive even though they don't fully trust his judgment. Russell finds a good balance between the narrative threads, giving them equal weight and moving seamlessly between them. He also shifts tones easily, setting off scenes of incredible tension and anxiety against scenes of light comedy without it ever seeming disjointed. Though the film leans towards the conventional in several respects, it is sharp edged enough and well-constructed enough that it transcends the ordinary.

Of course Russell is not alone in making Silver Linings Playbook work, and credit must be given to the cast as well. De Niro delivers his best performance in years as Pat Sr., a man who can never quite get far enough away from his obsession to recognize it as one, but whose heart is ultimately in the right place. As Pat Jr., Cooper is excellent, displaying a level of versatility and nuance that he doesn't always get to play. There are so many ways that he could have gone wrong with the character, and while the film demands that he sometimes go right up to the line, he always stays on the right side of going over the top. Lawrence, meanwhile, renders a performance that meets Cooper's half way and ensures that Tiffany has far more depth than her status as the "love interest" might naturally entail. At just 22, Lawrence is poised to receive her second Oscar nomination and with this performance further reinforces her status as an actress who will be worth watching for years to come. She and Cooper are an absolutely winning combination and Silver Linings Playbook is an absolutely winning film.

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