It’s safe to say that Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has some issues. After savagely beating his wife’s lover, Pat is diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and placed in a mental hospital for ten months. He returns home to a father (Robert De Niro) who is at the end of his rope as a bookie, court mandated therapy that he resents, and a manic desire to reunite with his ex, despite the restraining order that stands between them. His life is further complicated when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with a whole string of psychological issues of her own. The two strike up a very unlikely relationship that culminates in a dance contest (yes, a dance contest) for the ages that puts all of Pat’s many issues into a vacuum, forcing him to pick a path. Let’s take a brief look at some of the things Silver Linings Playbook had going against it.
1.) Its main subjects suffer from some form of mental illness, which can (read: “does”) lead to an uncomfortable experience for the audience; 2.) Due to the nature of this subject, the tone of the film is decisively uneven at times, skipping willy-nilly from comedy to heavy family drama and back again with reckless abandon; 3.) The overall plot (adapted from a bestselling book) is underwhelming and at times even a bit silly (see the aforementioned dance contest); 4.) Cooper, while extremely talented, is far from a sure thing at the box office and, given his recent history, might even be an audience deterrent; 5.) The age gap between the two stars, 15 years, is somewhat off-putting, made even more so by the fact that Lawrence played a naïve 16 year old in one of the year’s biggest films just a few short months ago; 6.) And if all of that wasn’t enough, a good chunk of the film revolves around the Philadelphia Eagles and their fan base, one of the most reviled franchises in American sports.
To stand in the midst of such an onslaught of potential problems and keep a film’s head above water would be quite an accomplishment. But to turn those problems on their respective heads and put together a good film that even borders on great is a remarkable achievement for which director David O. Russell and his cast deserve great acclaim. This is a film that absolutely should not work but somehow comes together beautifully against all odds.
Much of the success of Silver Linings Playbook comes down to the outright brilliance of the cast. I’m not the first to say this and I imagine I won’t be the last but this is the Bradley Cooper performance I’ve been waiting for. A highly trained, supremely talented and intelligent actor, Cooper routinely makes odd (or downright bad) choices in roles and then tends to sleep walk through material that he clearly believes himself to be better than. Here, though, he is fully engaged and brings Pat to life perfectly. He is all at once likeable, unlikeable, pathetic and interesting, and almost immediately you find yourself rooting for his success despite his flaws. This appreciation is brought about organically and there are few actors who exude the sort of charisma and vulnerability that this role requires. It’s a fantastic portrayal that makes me despise movies like Limitless all the more for how much of Cooper’s time has been wasted.
Cooper is not alone in his greatness, however. Lawrence is in every way his equal, playing Tiffany with a sense of tormented strength that commands attention on screen at all times. Just like Pat, she is a bit unpredictable, which is not an easy trait to portray but one that Lawrence hits on the head over and over again. Tiffany is haunted and as a result she jumps from normal to fits of emotional outbursts that I never really got used to but came to love regardless. The relationship between the two is sort of an acquired taste more than it is “natural chemistry” but this fits the film perfectly and only makes their bond seem more meaningful. To date, Lawrence’s is the strongest female performance I’ve seen this year and one that will undoubtedly factor in during awards season.
If these performances weren’t enough, Silver Linings Playbook also contains two supporting portrayals of particular interest. This is, by far, the most substantial work De Niro has done in at least a dozen years and maybe longer. As someone who considers him to be the greatest American actor of his generation, it has been painful to watch him waste away in terrible movies like Righteous Kill and Analyze That and I’ve often wondered if he even had anything left in the tank. This is a strong reminder that yes, he is still a great actor who is capable of tremendous work under the right circumstances. Less significant but no less important to the film’s strength is Chris Tucker in his first role since 2005 and his first non-Rush Hour role since 1997. His screen time is limited but he adds to the depth of the film overall and left me wondering what I should expect from him in the near future.
My feelings toward Russell’s direction, and perhaps even the film itself, are a bit more complex than my feelings toward the exquisite acting. There are a number of big name directors who would have struggled to navigate all of the potential pratfalls Silver Linings Playbook had in front of it from the get-go and still turn in a quality product and yet there’s a part of me that wonders if this film still could have been better. The story doesn’t always equal up to the actors working within it and the dialogue is at times middling and unimpressive. Some of the background characters are inconsistent which adds to the already up-and-down nature of the film as a result of the tone. I was left with the feeling that Silver Linings Playbook would have fallen incredibly flat if not for the great performances, which is exactly the same way I felt coming out of Russell’s last film, The Fighter.
With that in mind, however, what Russell does extremely well is putting his actors in a position to succeed. Wahlberg and Bale gave the strongest performances of their careers in The Fighter and this is certainly the best we’ve ever seen from Cooper or Lawrence. Russell’s films tend to live or die by the actors and while that isn’t always the best way to go, it gives said actors the chance to shine in ways they never have before. Russell also impressed me herewith his willingness to keep Silver Linings Playbook on the same track for the entire film, to ride out the many ups and downs that come along the way. This film doesn’t come along with much in the way of a soft landing or any artificial emotions and it also doesn’t become quirky which would have been an easy way to ease the natural discomfort that comes along with the narrative. I wasn’t sure that this movie was going to work with me until the very end because it is such a roller coaster of emotions but the way in which Russell brings it altogether strikes a perfect chord, making this an altogether enjoyable experience in spite of all the odds.
Silver Linings Playbook Director: David O. Russell Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker Rated: R (Language, overall discomfort) Recommended For: Ages 15 and up