Movies don’t have to be perfect to be loved. It’s a good thing, too, or we might never love anything that reached the big screen. Because it’s a romantic comedy that spits in formula’s eye, because it’s built around winning performances and because it successfully mixes humor with a bit of edgy drama, Silver Linings Playbook deserves a big hunk of audience love.
From the movie’s opening, it’s clear that we’ve never seen Bradley Cooper (of Hangover fame) in this kind of role. In an early image, we see Cooper’s Pat Solitano talking to himself. As the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Pat has lots of high-speed conversations bouncing around his head.
R for language and some sexual content/nudit
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Pat, we also discover, is about to be released from a mental institution. He’s in the up-cycle of a bipolar affliction, and somehow has convinced himself that he’s going to find the silver lining in every cloud that has or ever will hang over him.
Pat was sent to the institution as part of a plea bargaining deal. Eight months earlier, he arrived home to find his English-teacher wife in the shower with a history teacher. Pat, a substitute history teacher, lost control and nearly beat the man to death.
Director David O. Russell’s character-rich comedy distinguishes itself by throwing away both the romcom and mental-illness-drama play books as it encounters life’s absurdities and celebrates its saving graces.
Pat’s mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up at the institution, and brings him home. Pat’s father (Robert De Niro) is appropriately concerned about his emotionally tipsy son, a guy who’s liable to erupt in anger when he hears Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, the song he and his wife chose for their wedding.
Obsessively determined, Pat has one goal. He wants to win back his wife Nikki (Brea Bee), a task made more difficult by the restraining order that she has taken out against him.
I know. It may not sound like it, but Silver Linings Playbook is most assuredly a comedy, although it sometimes pushes the definition to a breaking point.
Hopes for Pat’s recovery don’t look particularly promising because he refuses to take his meds and because he’s not entirely convinced that he needs to do anything more than stay positive.
He’s also not keenly self-aware, which may explain why Pat jogs through his neighborhood in sweats covered by a plastic garbage bag. It has something to do with trying to lose more weight. Nikki thought he was getting too flabby. But a garbage bag?
As part of his battle plan, Pat goes on a reading jag: He tries to devour every book on the syllabus his English-teaching wife uses. He retreats to his attic room and reads Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. But rather than being moved by the book’s powerfully sad ending, he’s outraged. He wakes his parents at four in the morning to rant about the fact that Hemingway couldn’t bring himself to write a happy ending for his story about love and war.
For Pat, nothing feels more urgent than whatever emotion he happens to be experiencing, whatever thought pops into his head. He’s locked inside himself.
Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, the screenplay has more in mind than chronicling Pat’s descent into mental illness. At a dinner with old friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles), Pat meets his match, a young neighborhood woman (Jennifer Lawrence) with a slutty reputation and a penchant for honesty. For a while, it looks as if the screenplay is going to pit one against the other in a contest to see who’s crazier, Lawrence’s widowed Tiffany or Cooper’s tightly wound Pat.
It takes an adventurous director such as Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and The Fighter) to keep a movie such as Silver Linings Playbook from blowing up in its own face.
Russell doesn’t shy away from some of the drama that’s bound to be produced in a situation involving mental illness. The police are frequent visitors to the Solitano household. But he also has a firm grip on the comedy that’s lodged in the Solitano family dynamic, and he gives the story an ample helping of Philly soul.
The story also introduces us to Pat’s therapist (Anupam Kher); his older brother (Shea Whigham) and a variety of others; Chris Tucker plays a friend Pat meets during his eight month stint in the mental ward.
But the movie’s beating heart belongs to Cooper and Lawrence, who create some of the year’s most interesting chemistry.
Cooper never has been better; and Lawrence proves herself a sexy force of nature as a woman who (in my old neighborhood) would have been said to “have a real mouth on her.”
De Niro excels as a compulsive and extremely superstitious Philadelphia Eagles’ fan and part-time bookmaker; Weaver (familiar from Animal Kingdom) is fine as his long-suffering wife, a woman who generally tries to see things through the silver linings that her son says he hopes to find.
When I tell you that Silver Linings Playbook builds toward a dance contest (no, I’m not kidding), your guard rightly should go up. Trust me. This is not a typical, end-of-movie contest, and Silver Linings Playbook is no run-of-the-mill romcom.
You may find reason to carp about Silver Linings Playbook, but remember what I said at the outset: Love — as Pat and Tiffany amply demonstrate — is far from perfect. Still, there’d be a lot fewer movies, if we didn’t believe that it beats the hell out of the next best thing.