A film review by Craig J. Koban November 28, 2012

RANK:  #22


2012, R, 122 mins.

Pat: Bradley Cooper / Tiffany: Jennifer Lawrence / Pat Sr.: Robert De Niro / Dolores: Jacki Weaver / Danny: Chris Tucker / Veronica: Julia Stiles

Written and directed by David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick.

David O. Russell’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK may not be everyone’s idea of a happy-go-lucky romcom.  After all, it is about a troubled man that has chronic bipolar disorder that nearly beats his wife’s lover to death, forcing him to be locked up in a mental hospital while his spouse puts out a restraining order on him.  Yet, it’s the film’s thorny thematic territory – based on the award-winning book by Matthew Quick – that gives it a sense capricious nerve and unpredictable energy.  Russell, as a writer/director, is not one to overtly shy away from focusing on dysfunctional characters and use their inherent dysfunction as a source of uneasy comedy, but he does so rather splendidly in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.   

It’s a real delicate balancing act here for Russell, as he has to combine the standard elements of the audience-placating romcom with a tale of mental illness, family unit craziness, and the obsessive levels that football fans will go to in order to ensure that their team is successful on the field.  It makes for one really, really peculiar hybrid, but Russell does not admonish his fairly disturbed personas, but rather lets them loose on screen – warts and all – and demands our patience with understanding and ultimately empathizing with what makes them tick.  Even if you look back at Russell’s last film, the Oscar nominated THE FIGHTER, you sensed his willingness to take the struggles and foibles of ordinary, working class people and expose them with a frank and brutal honesty, and sometimes with a cheerful underbite.  The same is true for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK; the film is joyously funny at times, but with an undeniable edge. 

Pat (a never been better Bradley Cooper) has hit very hard times.  He’s the aforementioned sap that caught the love of his life having sex with her lover in the shower, and he pounded on the adulterer so viciously that he got institutionalized as part of a plea bargain.  As the film opens he’s about to be released after an eight-month stay in the hospital, but you gain an immediate impression that he is not fully rehabilitated.  He routinely rejects medication and therapy, believing that he thinks more clearly without them, and seems almost unhealthily positive minded.  His single-minded goal is to rekindle his relationship with his wife, which is very difficult, of course, considering the restraining order against him. 



Pat’s caring mother (the delightful Jacki Weaver, a million miles removed from her work in ANIMAL KINGDOM) welcomes him home with warm sympathy, but she is but a pillar of normalcy amidst the lunacy that is her own household.  Her husband, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is a fan – nay, make that an incomparably compulsive follower – of the Philadelphia Eagles that has recently turned to being a sports bookie to make ends meat.  He employs an alarming number of fanatical superstitions to ensure that his beloved NFL team wins, which sorts of amuses and even disturbs a nutjob like his son.  Dear ol’ dad gets very perturbed when Pat will not sit down with him to watch the Eagles play, especially since he considers him to be a good luck charm that all but ensures Eagles victories. 

While trying to evade his own father’s borderline loony-bin-worthy behavior, Pat desperately tries to enact a plan of action to reconnect with his wife, but hits many roadblocks, especially since his behavior is deliriously erratic due to his unwillingness to take his meds.  He crosses paths with another local screwjob named Nikki (Jennifer Lawrence) who has ties with his estranged wife.  Nikki has emotional and mental issues of her own, seeing as her husband was recently killed in a freak accident and she subsequently – as a form of perverse self-therapy – has turned herself into the town tramp.  After a series of very strange meet-cutes and run-ins, Nikki begrudgingly decides to help Pat give a heartfelt letter to his wife…but on one condition: he must be her partner in a dance competition.  Pat reluctantly agrees, but along the way he becomes even more engulfed with his zealot-like quest to establish communication with his wife, so much so that he can’t seem to notice that he has a beautiful and available woman in front of his eyes in Nikki that seems to be falling hard for him. 

I don’t think that I need to tell you more about where SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is heading, because, to be fair, it traverses towards its conclusion with a nagging unavoidability.  The conclusion will not surprise anyone in the audience that has not watched any romcom before, and the final moments in the film seem obviously constructed right from the get-go.  Yet, for as predictable as the story’s climax is, Russell’s film avoids painfully mechanical routines and conventions of the genre while getting us there.   The film has more of a sense of unhinged chaos about it than most other romcoms, and even when you know precisely how it will all end you are nonetheless left anxiously uncertain and off-balance as to what the characters will do next to arrive at that point.    

Of course, the film would never work if it were not for the chemistry of its two main leads, and Cooper and Lawrence seem to take great elation in showing their respective character's growing attraction to one another while battling their own inherent disorders and frailties.  I have often said that Cooper, as a performer, has a real polish for playing duplicitous minded a-holes in movies that we grow to like; Pat is a different type of demented beast in the sense that he suffers from a deep psychosis that’s beyond his control at times.  Even when he says toxic and hurtful things to his loved ones that should invite our hatred of him, we are left with a sense of levelheaded concern and compassion for him.  Cooper's performance is delicate and precise for the way it bounces around from one emotional spectrum and extreme to the next. 

The two best performances in the film reside with Lawrence and De Niro, the former who perhaps just might be the only young actress working today that can hold her own and steal scenes away from the seasoned latter.  Lawrence is just 22-years-old, but she displays a remarkable maturity and affinity for playing characters that seem so lived-in and experienced in the avenues of life’s hardships (see WINTER’S BONE).  She’s also a rare type of naturally beautiful actress that can plausibly sink her teeth into a role that requires a credible level of snarling, street-wise, and teeth-clenched intensity and inner strength.   De Niro – who has recently allowed his career to shamelessly flat line with one embarrassing comedic performance after another – has fully and triumphantly liberated himself here from those past indiscretions by inhabiting the complicated role of the mad football fan/father that has issues relaying love to his equally troubled son.  He has a tearful bedside confessional chat with Cooper – revealing all of his insecurities, doubts, and fears – that reminds us of De Niro’s past dramatic greatness.      

Perhaps this is all thanks to Russell, who has an almost unmatched ability to garner strong and memorable performances from his great ensemble casts.  He also has to jump back and forth between dark cynicism and heartbreaking - and oftentimes difficult to watch – melodrama and cherry, crowd-pleasing comedy throughout SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  The film ends as perfunctorily as just about any romcom I’ve recently seen, but it contains pitch perfect performances, uniquely handled themes, and a willingness to find laughs in the most disheartening places that makes it stand far apart from the pack. 

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