Principal Cast : Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, Julia Styles, John Ortiz, Brea Bee, Cheryl Williams, Patrick McDade, Dash Mihok, Matthew Russell.
Synopsis: Pat, having recently been released from court-mandated mental care after beating up a man who was having an affair with Pat’s wife, tries to rebuild his life alongside fellow tragic Tiffany, herself recently bereaved and slowly going off the rails.
Not since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest has mental health been such a dominant force at the Oscars….
I told the wife she’d enjoy this one. I was right. Normally, that wouldn’t be the case. Silver Linings Playbook is a story of two people coming together through their various mental health issues, and you’d have to go a long way to see a film deliver such a story with the kind of subtlety and wit – nay, charm – that this film does. Silver Linings is a “charming” film, in that it doesn’t make light of folks with mental health issues (such as bi-polar disorder or OCD) but rather, humanizes it in a way most Hollywood films might otherwise run scared from. Requiem For A Dream is a film that comes close thematically, although Silver Linings is far less brutal on the senses. Other than an examination of mental health, Silver Linings is also a love story – broken love, found love, and blinding love, all wrapped up in between Robert DeNiro’s obsessed football fan and gambler, and Bradley Cooper’s equally obsessed (with his wife) Pat, trying to turn their lives around, and the maddening force-of-nature that is Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany coming between them. I’ve already told you that my wife enjoyed it, and it’s pretty clear from my lack of vitriol that I liked the film too; does Silver Linings Playbook deserve all the Oscar buzz swirling about it? Is it a worthy contender for Best Picture, or an also-ran running on the personable Cooper and the return-to-form DeNiro?
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is released from court-ordered psychiatric care into the custody of his parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Snr (Robert DeNiro). Pat Jr suffers from bi-polar disorder, and was placed into care after assaulting a fellow teacher after he caught him having sex with Pat’s wife, Nikki. Now released, Pat Jr seeks reconciliation with Nikki although it appears his mental health is far from perfect, as his dysfunctional relationship with his parents plays out. Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) through his friends Veronica (Julia Stiles) and Ronnie (John Ortiz), and learns that Tiffany has recently suffered a mental break following the accidental death of her husband of three years in a car accident. The two broken souls connect, with Tiffany conscripting Pat into learning dance in order to show the court (and Nikki) that he’s grown and matured as a person in order to win her back – Pat’s father, meanwhile, is an OCD afflicted Philadelphia Eagles super-fan, who bets on the games with his bookie (Paul Herman) and sees his son as a good luck charm. As their relationship grows, Pat and Tiffany must overcome their own tortured histories, realize that they have feelings for each other, and allow themselves to love again.
Silver Linings is definitely a character driven story – the film’s script is based on Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, and written for the screen by the director, David O Russell. The characters aren’t clearly defined either, often lacking coherent motivation early until the onion-skin of the back-story starts to unwrap. Russell’s script is brassy, nuanced and layered, giving each character within it the chance to shine at various moments, but the majority of the movie belongs to Cooper. Cooper’s Pat is a jittery, paranoid, obsessed bi-polar ex-teacher, hell bent on getting back with his now estranged wife since “the incident”, and as the film opens we get the sense that there’s almost no cure for his often maniacal personality. Stemming from this, Pat’s father, Pat Snr, played by DeNiro, is an OCD-ridden bookmaker, trying to earn enough money to start a restaurant, although he’s spending more money gambling on the Eagles games than actually saving it. As a father figure, Pat Snr isn’t high on the “must see” list, given his erratic and obsessive nature, yet DeNiro gives him an edginess and a kind of “out of control” feeling that’s perfectly counterbalanced Cooper’s “trying to maintain control” younger son. Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany is both brash and soulfully tragic, externally a rage-monster while internally sobbing to sleep every night. Tiffany’s way of dealing with the death of her husband is to sleep with as many people as she can. I found that a tad odd, I can tell you, but Lawrence (and Russell’s script) sell it very well.
The leading cast are uniformly superb. Bradley Cooper gives a performance out of his skin (almost literally) as Pat Jr, his transformation across the length of the film great to watch. He shoulders the lions share of the films dramatic moments with ease – an ease I never thought he’d have, to be honest, and I’m glad to be proven wrong. I thought the way he developed the character from opening to close was magnificently done; his chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence, who for some reason is looking more and more like Rene Zellweger every day, is a little less convincing, however, and this part of the film ends up being the weakest. That’s not to say the film’s weak, but just the “romantic” moments aren’t as strong throughout. Lawrence does a decent job as Tiffany, although her fire-and-brimestone act seems a little out of place on such a delicate actress. I felt her underlying sadness over the death of her husband allowed Tiffany to be more grounded than Pat, who hadn’t lost his wife to death, only to being a cheating bitch, and Lawrence handled this material well. Robert DeNiro’s performance is also terrific, although I’m inclined to say it’s only barely Oscar-worthy, if at all. Sure, hate all you want, but DeNiro’s character seems to be a cruise for him, hardly stretching him at all. His “crying scene”, midway through, where he confronts his feelings of failure over Pat’s situation, seems stiff and contrived, with almost crocodile tears in a way, although perhaps I’m such a jaded and cynical critic that I can’t see the truth behind it.
Secondary players also have some fine work to do – Aussie actress Jacki Weaver (nominated for an Oscar for Animal Kingdom) is beautifully heartbreaking as the Solitano matriarch trying to keep her family from falling apart. It obviously kills her to see her youngest son suffering so much, and she seems to have become used to the kooky ways of her husband; Weaver’s affecting performance isn’t worthy of the Oscar nomination she snagged, in my opinion, but it’s a terrific performance nonetheless. It’s a smallish role for the impact it has on the film, but Weaver hammers it home anyway. Julia Styles and John Ortiz, as Pat’s friends (and Tiffany’s in-laws) are awkwardly great as they fumble through their friend’s issues – you can see them trying to avoid using the words “crazy” and “loopy”, which they succeed in, behaving as normal as they can while at the same time being on-edge trying not to “set off” Pat on one of his episodes. Ortiz in particular has his own problems, and uses Pat as a sounding board to expand on them; their scenes together are effortlessly wonderful. Finally, the work of Chris Tucker, an actor whom I normally have very, very little time for, is impressively good here. He’s going against type as a fellow psychiatric patient with Pat Jr, toning down the screeching histrionics of his Rush Hour and Fifth Element roles in favor of a breathy, alto-voiced man-child; it’s a potential career-turner for Tucker, and I hope we see him take on more of this kind of acting challenge than the type we’re used to.
Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t have very many genuine faults, although I can’t say I thought it was a genuine Oscar contender in the same vein as, say Les Miserables. Silver Linings is a different film than that, of course, and expectations were met that it was enjoyably entertaining at the very least. The rapid-fire introduction to characters can be a bit unsettling at first, but it’s the way Russell edits the film, using music and sound in a creative manner, as well as giving the performances room to breathe, which allows the audience to really get to know these people. Dialogue is very modern, often overlapping in the new way of progressing a scene faster – it’s never confusing, though, with Russell’s deft edits ensuring we get to see all the best bits. Technically, it’s a well made film, and narratively, it’s equally terrific. Having said that, there’s something about the film that prevents me from putting it high on the pedestal of favoritism for Oscar, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s a bad film. It’s excellent, and entertaining, but not in that “look at me skipping to the Oscar stage to win everything” way; yes, Silver Linings Playbook is charming – this is a film you’ll enjoy watching, recommend to friends, and probably re-watch once or twice later in life, but it’s never going to be on high rotation. Solid, unassuming and entertaining to a fault, Silver Linings Playbook is most definitely worth a look.