Never one to conform to genre or expectations, writer/director David O. Russell is something of a contradiction in Hollywood. On the one hand you have the seven times Oscar-nominated The Fighter and the brilliant action thriller Three Kings while on the other you have the mess that was I ♥Huckabees. His films may not always succeed but they’re rarely predictable. Recently he even flirted with the idea of a video game adaptation (Uncharted) before plumping for the more awards friendly Silver Linings Playbook but is it worthy of the Oscar-buzz it’s currently generating?
Recently released from a psychiatric institute as part of a plea bargain for beating up his wife’s lover, Pat (Bradley Cooper) is forced to move back in with his controlling father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and sensitive mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Pat’s determined however to get his life back on track and win back the affections of his wife despite her restraining order against him. While looking for the silver lining in his life, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow whose unconventional grief therapy involved sleeping with all her workmates. Together these two broken souls form a bond and just might be the shining light at the end of the tunnel to help them both heal.
From the outset Silver Linings Playbook feels like a natural successor to The Fighter. Set in the suburbs of Philadelphia it presents the same feel of community and family; the larger than life characters, the rows of detached houses where everyone knows everyone and, most importantly, at its centre a story about a family divided while staying true to each other. Plot-wise it’s nothing new or particularly original, you see the beats coming a mile off and yet, for this very reason, Silver Linings Playbook works. Yes, it’s familiar, it’s predictable but we all have our issues, we all struggle to find our place in the world and, most of all, we all crave someone to share our lives with.
The script is snappy, the dialogue tripping off the tongue with enough biting charm to bring a smile and often a laugh. Pat has almost no internal monologue so tends to say exactly what is on his mind. Tiffany on the other hand is not afraid to confront an issue head-on, more often than not despite Pat’s violent past, standing up to him and dominating him in a way you suspect he always needed. Despite their issues, they’re the most honest characters in the film. As they point out to a room full of people towards the end; they know who they are, they’re not hiding from their issues and as such they have a sixth sense about other peoples’ problems. It’s hard to argue given the developments over the course of the film.
Unfortunately the film’s mental health issues are all too often cast aside. Near the beginning you feel there is something important to be said, a point aching to be made, and yet it never arrives. The mid-section is muddled, struggles to progress either plot or character, and you cannot help but feel a deeper investigation of Pat and Tiffany’s conditions would have allowed us to further fall for them.
Russell lets his actors do much of the work for him but when you’ve assembled a cast like this most directors would do well to heed such tactics. Cooper brings some welcome vulnerability to his normal cocky guy routine, instilling more emotion in a character than we have seen from him before. It’s unlikely to bring him any best actor nods but it’s a step up from his normal wise-cracking ways. De Niro, for the first time in decades, feels like he’s bringing more than just his name to the credits, his Pat Sr. arguably just as dysfunctional but with a thin mask of rationality. When you hear that Pat Sr. isn’t allowed to watch his beloved Eagles at their stadium due to a lifetime ban for violence, you begin to see that venom behind De Niro’s old gangster stare. Jacki Weaver is wonderful as the caring Dolores, a typically homespun mom, happiest when cooking and looking after the men in the house, a world away from her Oscar-nominated role in Animal Kingdom. Even Chris Tucker comes off, for once, as a likable character, his Danny more subdued than anything we’ve ever seen from the motor-mouthed comedian and hinting at an acting ability far beyond expectations.
However the film’s stand out is Jennifer Lawrence. Consistently the best thing in everything she stars in, Lawrence (despite the 15 year age gap with Cooper) brings the same level of maturity we saw from her in Winter’s Bone. As Tiffany she is confrontationally strong on the surface while never letting you lose sight of the damaged individual beneath. Every line of dialogue is spoken with a dry, almost detached, sensibility that perfectly illustrates Tiffany’s guarded ways. It’s hands down one of the best performances of the year and again reiterates what an important actress she is at the tender age of 22.
With bittersweet charm and characters you’ll immediately love, Silver Linings Playbook is a warm, funny and dramaticcomedy. As such you can forgive it its predictability and simply sit back and enjoy it for what it is, fun with a capital F.
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