By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 9, 2012 at 12:17PM
Life hasn't been too kind lately for Pat Solitano. He's just been released from a court ordered stint in a mental hospital after severly beating the man he caught cheating with his wife. Diagnosed as bipolar with mood swings, Pat has a difficult journey ahead of him but he's optimistic. With a rallying cry of "Excelsior," he believes that you can take "all negativity and make it a silver lining." His outlook is positive and he hopes to rebuild himself to win his wife back who has a restraining order out on him. And so begins David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," an enormously entertaining, crowd-pleasing winner from the director whose comedic edge has never been sharper.
Pat moves back home with his homemaker mother (Jacki Weaver) and obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan father (Robert De Niro), who has become a bookie after losing his pension. He goes to therapy sessions with Dr. Patel (Anupam Ker), and is reading the syllabus his wife, a public school teacher, has put together for her students in order to understand her better. Refusing to take meds, he still struggles to control his emotions (his reaction after getting to the end of Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell To Arms" is one of the many highlights of the film) and is unable to filter his thoughts. But he meets his match when he's introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is still reeling from the death of husband, and has acted out in her own self-harming ways. And as you might guess, the two form a unique bond that helps them overcome their own personal issues.
While the film's tone will find many making comparisons to Russell's "Flirting With Disaster" -- and indeed, it has that film's energy, though it's not quite as zany -- the helmer imbues it with an even bigger heart than "The Fighter," creating a picture that while frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, has very real emotional stakes. Russell wisely never overplays that latter card, tending to side with comedy over drama more often than not, but when those notes do come to the fore, the character work has been so well done, that they're honest without being sentimentalized.
But none of this works without some carefully developed, and perfectly pitched performances from the leads, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who both arguably give career best, awards-worthy performances. We've frankly never seen Cooper in a role like this, one that requires him to not only to carry the film, but to play a nuanced character in Pat who is big in personality, but also tremendously vulnerable. And Cooper toes all of it deftly, both commanding and pushing the story forward. He's also outrageously funny. Lawrence may be an even bigger surprise to many as Tiffany, a young woman who is sexy, tough and also easily bruised, who not only has to manage Pat's unpredictable nature, but also keep herself on an even keel to stop from sliding into self destructive tendencies. And the actress simply nails it, and one particular showdown with De Niro is awards-reel ready, and earned deserved applause as well from the TIFF press audience.
While a story about two socially maladjusted individuals might not be the most obviously relatable story, Russell's surprisingly patient film (which runs a brisk two hours) allows us to understand these characters. 'Silver Linings' isn't a movie about mental illness, so much as it's about the struggle many can identify with in trying to find someone who can accept us for all of our quirks and flaws, big and small. While Nikki did cheat on Pat, it becomes clear as we learn about that relationship that they may not have been the best match to start (ie. they would fight and then not speak to each other for weeks). And the same goes for Tiffany, whose husband tragically passed away during a particularly rough patch, one that he though he could solve with lingerie from Victoria's Secret. And as Pat watches the marriage between his friends, played by a whipped John Ortiz and an ice queen-ish Julia Stiles, he learns what a true give and take between two people is -- and isn't.
Granted, "Silver Linings Playbook" isn't the deepest movie you'll see this year, and ultimately doesn't say anything new about how men and women relate. But Russell's film says it in a manner that is a true joy to watch. His films have always been a bit rough around the edges, with a bit of a sense of anarchy about them, but this is the director at his most focused. And yet, it doesn't come at the loss of his sense of verve and timing, and still retains a looseness while never losing track of where the characters and story need to go.
It's easy to understand why The Weinstein Company presented footage from this film along with "The Master" and "Django Unchained" in Cannes for press, because there is no doubt this will be a contender. Yes, the marketing presents it as a big broad comedy -- and it certainly is -- but it's also a unique and involving tale of two outsiders who together find a way to get on with life after it has dealt them some bad hands. And the silver lining is a film that is worth every satisfying minute you spend with it. [A]