122 minutes | MPAA rating: R
With “Silver Linings Playbook” director David O. Russell (“Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees,” “The Fighter”) has made a screwball comedy about mental illness that is simultaneously very funny and dead serious about the pain inherent in such a diagnosis.
This movie shouldn’t work. It could have fatally derailed at any one of several junctures.
And yet thanks to a stupendous cast and Russell’s almost supernatural ability to juggle scenes, moods and characters, the film emerges as a small triumph.
Our troubled hero is Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), back in his parents’ suburban Philadelphia home after several months in a psych ward. Pat is a manic depressive who, even in repose, seems to be engaged in an internal wrestling match with his demons.
A school teacher before he discovered his wife was having an affair (Pat beat her lover nearly to death), he returns to “normal” life filled with energy, ambition and a determination to win back both his job and his spouse. He is desperately, unnaturally optimistic, looking for a silver lining in even the most disheartening setbacks.
He’ll need all the optimism he can muster. His former co-workers are terrified of him and his wife has taken out a restraining order. And he’s still a very sick puppy, a guy with no filters on his behavior. (Pat goes berserk whenever he hears a particular Stevie Wonder song he associates with his wife’s infidelity).
Pat’s parents provide his old room, if not conventional stability. Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) is a laid-off blue-collar type who has launched a new career as a bookie. He’s obsessed (that’s the only word for it) with the Eagles, and on game days follows an exacting ritual which he believes makes his team invulnerable. He watches the contests on TV, having been banned from the stadium for brawling.
Pat’s Mom Dolores (Jacki Weaver) struggles to wear a hopeful face, but it’s a chore…her menfolk are damaged goods. You can smell the terror behind her maternal doting.
Invited to dinner at an old friend’ house, Pat encounters Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), recently widowed and nearly in as bad a shape as he is. Whereas Pat overdoses on hope, Tiffany specializes in sardonic pessimism — she’s all withering sarcasm, raccoon eye makeup and black fingernail polish.
They briefly bond over their shared histories with psychotropic medications, but Pat hasn’t room in his life for such a downer individual.
And this is where the screwball elements come in. Tiffany begins stalking Pat on his endless runs through the neighborhood (he’s decided exercise is better than meds). She suggests that she can get a letter to his wife…if he will be her partner in a city-wide ballroom dance competition.
At this point “Silver Linings” (adapted by Russell from Matthew Quick’s novel) threatens to go fatally wrong. The aggressive Tiffany and the reluctant Pat are thrown together physically to create a dance routine…you brace yourself for an extensive “training” montage.
Moreover, Tiffany seems less like a real human being than a male fantasy, a sexy female who’s tough on the outside and achingly vulnerable on the inside.
And the narrative become a thriller of sorts when Pat Sr. bets everything he owns on a wager that involves not only the Eagles winning a crucial game but Pat and Tiffany scoring in the dance competition.
Like I said, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Russell somehow holds all this madness in balance. Cooper gives his best performance to date by discovering the heroism in Pat’s delusions. Lawrence (can she even give a bad performance?) so confidently embraces Tiffany’s extremes that the audience ends up in love with her. And for all the character’s OCD irrationality, DeNiro nails Pat Sr.’s love for his unhappy child.
“Silver Linings Playbook” doesn’t have a villain…other than mental illness. It’s charitable toward its challenged and often maddening characters.
Like its hero, it’s looking for the good in all of us.
| Robert W. Butler