There’s something unbelievably infectious about David O. Russell’s latest movie, Silver Linings Playbook. It’s not that it’s particularly innovative or is a technical game-changer. It’s story is simple, almost predictable to a point. But it’s the product of a stupendously talented (albeit controversial) filmmaker fully committed to a heart-warming story with highly complex characters. So, too, does a commitment from its cast, armed with stars – both rising and setting – that take characters that could be played as caricature, but instead play them out as fully-fleshed, fully-realized characters. It’s this combination that makes this movie the most likable movie that I’ve seen all year. Funny, tense and wonderfully warm in ways that are very surprising, this may be the most crowd-pleasing movie of Russell’s career – and I mean that in the best way possible.
Continuing what may be the most consistently great year of his acting career, Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a former teacher who’s breakdown stemming from his wife’s infidelity led to an eight-month stint in a psychiatric ward and the realization that he has bipolar disorder. Fresh out of the box, he lives with his two parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), who both still express concerns about Pat’s mental state. Pat’s main objective now that he’s a free man? Win back his wife, Nicki. So gung ho about getting her back, he does not even realize the delusion that sits behind it, convincing himself that exercise and “controlling” his mood swings will show her that he’s ready to resume their marriage. But there is no control for Pat, just aloud repetition that there is control, and the more his parents and therapist try to tell him to take medication, the more he defiantly defies them.
When Pat’s old friends, Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his demanding wife Veronica (Julia Styles), invite him over for dinner and catch-up, Pat is initially skeptical. But perhaps he will be able to drum up some goodwill for Nicki? We learn early on that his main motivation for everything he does is to get back into Nicki’s good graces, and for a character that has no speaking lines and limited scenes, she surely commands a large presence. Instead, the dinner turns into a fracas when Veronica’s sister, Tiffany (a career-best Jennifer Lawrence) arrives. Equally notorious for mental illness and behavioral eccentricities, Tiffany takes an instant liking to Pat. So much so that she turns her sister’s dinner into an explosive argument, all so she can get an excuse to ask Pat to walk her home. Pat is obviously keen to the beauty and deliberate nature of Tiffany, but his goal is clear: get back Nicki. And he won’t be distracted.
Pat’s life takes an odd turn when he begins getting pulled in two different directions. Pat Sr., a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan with anger problems of his own (he’s actually on the permanent exclusion list from the stadium for fighting), wants to spend a bit more time with his son – but mostly because he thinks Pat Jr. is a superstitious good luck charm for the team. Meanwhile, Tiffany wants Pat to be her dance partner in an upcoming dance competition. In return, she promises to secretly give letters to Nicki for him – even though this breaks the restraining order that Nicki has placed against him. It’s fitting that these two worlds would collide for Pat – particularly inconvenient considering his fragile emotional state. But when the feelings between he and Tiffany start to grow, things become even more complicated.
This is David O. Russell’s best film since Three Kings (his 1999 masterpiece on Gulf War greed), and while this movie doesn’t have half of Kings‘ savvy intelligence, it has twice the heart. This is not a film that teases about what will happen in the end – we more or less know the conclusion of this kind of story from the beginning. That’s not what’s so captivating. It’s the characters themselves that are totally unpredictable. Coming from a screenplay scribed by Russell himself, Pat and Tiffany’s oddball chemistry bounces from sweet to volatile in a matter of moments, but we never doubt their feelings. The same comes from Pat Sr., filled with such inner sensitivity, it’s hard to predict when his explosions will come. Matched with Russell’s fractured, rhythmic Scorsesean flow throughout, and the film moves at a steady, but herky-jerky pace that keeps the audience off-balance.
But it’s hard to go through long passages of this film without smiling. When’s the last time that you could say Robert DeNiro was very good in a movie? How about Chris Tucker? Julia Styles? Whoever had the best that all three of those things would happen in one movie just cashed in on a huge payday. Despite Russell’s reputation as an irritant to most actors, he’s always made films with excellent ensemble performances, often bringing great, unorthodox performances from actors you wouldn’t expect to see that way. Pretty much all of Mark Wahlberg’s best acting work has come with Russell behind the camera. In this case, Bradley Cooper, famous mostly as a heartthrob from The Hangover gives the most effective performance of his career, filling the cranky, eccentric Pat with just enough soul so that he doesn’t become unwatchable.
But the show-stopper here is Jennifer Lawrence, whose Tiffany is a brilliant cinematic creation unlike any female romantic lead that I’ve ever seen. She’s spiteful, temperamental and almost too upfront with her issues and past indiscretions. But Lawrence gives the character just enough vulnerability behind the youthful eyes to make this tormented young woman a fundamentally likable character. Lawrence is a pretty good bet for an Oscar nomination in a few months, and probably a pretty good bet to win. At the fresh age of 22, Lawrence already has a Best Actress nomination for 2010’s Winter’s Bone and has blossomed into movie star status with the lead role in the new mega-series The Hunger Games. She’s a glamorous beauty, but never truly plays up to that aspect of her attractiveness, imbuing every character she plays with such a careful, attentive precision, and her performance here is probably the best one yet.
I was very pleased to see DeNiro in a role that did not seem like an instant paycheck (if only I can get something similar from Pacino, and I might be able to rest in peace). His role here is pretty pivotal and watching it seems like a role only DeNiro could fill (the glaring threat of violence over the large teddy bear). In a lot of ways, without a single sports scene, the film is a pretty great sports movie, documenting the mania behind sports fandom – particularly football fandom – and DeNiro is the key to that plot development. Jacki Weaver, in a thankless role as the women forced to referee between husband and son, excels as well in a perfect execution from a veteran actress. This movie has gotten a lot of attention since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I expect it will make a pretty big march into Oscar season. But even if it doesn’t, this is one of the best films of the year.
Written for the Screen and Directed by David O. Russell