“Silver Linings Playbook”
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, Julia Stiles
Rating: R, for sexual candor, brief nudity and relentless profanity
Enterprise film critic
Mental illness isn’t funny, and — thankfully — Hollywood has matured past the point of believing otherwise; standard-issue “loony-bin comedies” have gone the way of lovable drunks. When cinema tackles the topic these days, it’s generally with warmth and compassion, as with (for example) “Adam” and “The Soloist.”
But every individual’s life is equal parts hilarity and heartbreak, which also goes for people battling emotional disorders. The key is to craft a story that acknowledges but doesn’t exploit the situation, at which point we can comfortably laugh with, and not at, the characters; the marvelous “Benny & Joon” is an excellent example.
All of which brings us to “Silver Linings Playbook,” directed and scripted by David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “Flirting with Disaster”), and based on Matthew Quick’s debut 2008 novel.
At first blush, Russell’s approach to “Silver Linings Playbook” is as tense, jittery and nervous as its badly damaged protagonist, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), whom we meet as his mother (Jacki Weaver, as Dolores) checks him out of a state institution. The details emerge gradually; Pat’s eight-month stay resulted from a plea bargain that kept him out of jail after he came close to beating a man to death (with cause, it might be argued).
Pat has anger management issues, which is blindingly obvious from the moment we lay eyes on him. He grew up with undiagnosed bipolar mood swings, somehow holding things together long enough to finish school, obtain a teaching credential and marry … but then the inner demons became too much.
Now, as we confront Pat’s manic ups and downs — Cooper so explosively forceful, so potential dangerous, that we can’t take our eyes off him — his mother’s optimistic decision to bring him home seems naïve, perhaps even hazardous. We sweat every scene, wondering if Pat will go off like a time bomb.
The “incident” eight months back destroyed his career and marriage, but Pat has spent that time believing that, given the right approach, he can win back his wife … restraining order be damned. As we spend time with Pat and his parents, though, it becomes clear that the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is obsessive/compulsive to a degree that’s initially disturbing, manifesting itself in — among other things — perfectly aligned TV remotes and a handkerchief that he ceaselessly folds. Pat Sr. apparently has his own trouble with rage control, and has been banned from the stadium where his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play.
Watching televised games has, as a result, become so ritualized that Pat Sr. sets up various mental “totems” designed to ensure a victory, while Dolores faithfully serves up the same snacks. Worse yet, Pat Sr. is convinced that his son’s presence is essential to the establishment of “good juju,” a fixation that merely amplifies Pat’s own issues.
Right about this moment, though — thanks to the finely shaded performances from Cooper and De Niro — Pat and his father turn out to be far more than the sum of their quirks and nervous tics. They become tragic figures, and therefore sympathetic, if not exactly warm. Their behavior becomes logical and predictable, although certainly not rational … and that’s when we safely identify with them.
Pat’s elaborate scheme to woo back his wife involves winning over her best friend, Veronica (Julia Stiles), who is married to one of his good buddies (John Ortiz). But the last Pat knew, Veronica wanted no part of him; imagine his surprise, then, when she extends a dinner invitation to their home.
Enter Veronica’s younger sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a blunt, tart-tongued and similarly unstable young woman who has succumbed to grave depression following her own recent tragedy. Like Pat, Tiffany has been trying to manage the condition herself, with less than satisfying results. Oddly, inexplicably, Pat and Tiffany hit it off, in their own maladjusted way, and she strikes a devil’s bargain with him: She’ll help him send clandestine letters to his ex, if he’ll become her partner and train for an upcoming dance competition.
By this point, though, Russell has pulled off his film’s biggest miracle: The story has become endearing, hilarious and, yes, still poignant and heartbreaking. All emotions are in play, and we’re wholly invested in these flawed but somehow engaging characters. Everything builds to an emotionally combustible encounter in Pat Sr. and Dolores’ living room, which is just as funny — and revealing — as the moment when Amy Adams takes on all of Mark Walhberg’s snarky sisters during a similar scene in “The Fighter.”
Cooper’s Pat remains the loose cannon, though, and we keep waiting for him to go off; I haven’t been this nervous since Anne Hathaway was given the microphone during the rehearsal dinner in “Rachel Getting Married.” It’s such an acting leap for Cooper, from the numbnuts fluff of “The Hangover” or “The A-Team,” or the emotionally barren (and wholly unbelievable) work he did in “The Words” earlier this year. Cooper makes “crazy” as memorably sympathetic as Jack Nicholson did, all the way back in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Lawrence matches Cooper, scene for scene, giving Tiffany a ferocious, angry intensity that catches even Pat by surprise. Their “meet cute” moment during the aforementioned dinner is hilarious because of both characters’ bluntness, “chatting” at a level most of us never would dare stray. Lawrence is, as well, smolderingly sexual in a manner likely to surprise folks who know her only as Katniss, in “The Hunger Games.”
De Niro, too often parodying his own best work these days, achieves his former glory with an equally nuanced, finely tuned performance as an emotionally barren father who desperately wants to reach out to his damaged son, but doesn’t know how.
Russell’s handling of “Silver Linings Playbook” is unorthodox; the crowd-pleasing tone of his third act is wildly at odds with the first act’s chaos and nerve-jangling stress. Given cinema’s limitations, we also aren’t allowed to eavesdrop on Pat’s inner thoughts, as is the case with Quick’s novel, where his protagonist can better justify his decisions and behavior.
But I’ll tolerate the uneven tone for the sake of these three key characters, each played so memorably by Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro. They may be driven apart — frequently — by their mood swings and erratic behavior, but they’re united by love: messy, ill-advised but no less authentic and heartwarming.
“Silver Linings Playbook” can be hard to embrace, for the first half-hour or so, but I promise you’ll be entranced from that point forward.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com