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Josh Reviews Silver Linings Playbook

Nothing in the plot description of Silver Linings Playbook really caught my attention, but the fact that it was written (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) and directed by David O. Russell automatically made the film something I was interested in.  I don’t love all of Mr. Russell’s films, but they’re all very interesting and unique, and I really dug his last film, The Fighter (click here for my review).  I was very pleasantly surprised to find Silver Linings Playbook to be just as enjoyable as The Fighter. The two films have a similar feel in that Mr. Russell has crafted a film that feels honest and filled with Mr. Russell’s quirky style, but also just on the right side of mainstream-crowd-pleasing.  That’s a very difficult balance to strike, and I am impressed by the skill with which Mr. Russell and his team have been able to again walk that line.

In the film, Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a young man with bipolar disorder.  At the start of the film, he is released from a mental hospital into the care of his parents.  It seems that several months prior, Pat had an “incident” caused by a confrontation with his wife (an event that is gradually explored over the course of the film).  Pat is eager to return to his old life and to patch things up with his wife, but it’s clear that he has mental and emotional issues that will not be so easy to resolve.  At a dinner with some friends, Pat meets a young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).  It’s clear that Tiffany has plenty of issues of her own, though sparks immediately fly between her and Pat.  The crux of Silver Linings Playbook is the burgeoning friendship between Pat and Tiffany, and the question of whether the two of them can each get over what is going on in their own heads in order to form a successful, stable relationship with the other.

That description sounds pretty dreary and heavy (which is a large part why the film didn’t immediately interest me when I first heard about it), but Mr. Russell maintains a light touch with the material throughout.  While the film is not what I’d call a comedy, it is quite humorous, and there’s a playfulness to the proceedings that I found very endearing and engaging.  The movie is dramatic enough that we become invested in Pat and Tiffany and we feel their ups and downs, but the movie is light enough that we don’t get too bogged down in Oscar-baiting seriousness.  (And there are a few really big laughs, none better or more-earned than the moment towards the end in which Pat and Tiffany’s dance-competition score is announced.)

Winter’s Bone (click here for my review) sold me on Jennifer Lawrence forever, and she puts in another great performance here as Tiffany.  In Ms. Lawrence’s hands, we see Tiffany’s kind heart, but we also see how buried that heart has become under the weight of all of her emotional baggage.  Bradley Cooper, meanwhile, is a revelation as Pat.  I’ve always found Mr. Cooper to be an affable and charming performer, able to handle comedy or drama, but I was extremely impressed by his work here as Pat.  The film really rests on his shoulders, and he knocks it out of the park, portraying Pat’s bipolar disorder in a way that feels honest without ever making him into nothing more than a punchline (even while we often laugh at his antics).  It’s an extremely subtle, nuanced performance, one made even more effective by the full weight of Mr. Cooper’s charm and 100-watt smile.

I also really loved the team of Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver as Pat’s parents.  Robert De Niro was, in his youth, one of the finest screen actors of all time, but it’s been quite a while since he’s turned in a real acting performance.  But he is fantastic in the film as Pat’s book-maker father, Pat Senior.  Like all the roles in the film, Mr. De Niro must strike a tricky balance in that there are comedic elements to his character, but he never crosses the line into silliness.  Pat Senior is tough on his son, but he also has a deep well of caring for him which he expresses in his own way (mostly in his borderline-obsessive belief that he’ll have good luck on the football games he is betting on when his son watches them with him).  What a delight it is to see the true Robert De Niro back in top form.  He is perfectly paired with Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mom, Dolores.  Ms. Weaver has of course been acting in films for quite a while, though I confess I only discovered her work fairly recently in the violent Australian film Animal Kingdom (click here for my review).  She’s spectacular as Pat’s mom, navigating the two rather difficult men in her life (her husband and son) with grace and good humor.  There’s great chemistry between her and Mr. De Niro.

I have a small, nagging concern that the film makes a little light of the seriousness of mental illness.  Specifically, I felt that the film’s resolution risks over-simplifying things with a “true love conquers all” ending.  Once Pat starts working on his dancing with Tiffany, most of the issues we saw him having in the first part of the film seem to drop away.  Here’s where the film enters the mainstream, crowd-pleasing arena.  There’s no denying that the film’s ending is extremely crowd-pleasing and certainly felt good to me as an audience-member getting to know and love these characters over the course of the film.  The ending might be a place in which Mr. Russell strayed from real honesty into more Hollywood-land, but he does it with such skill that it all works for me.  It was only after the theater and was thinking about the film, that I began to have a few twangs of doubt about the ending.  I’m conflicted, because I always prefer emotional truth in films to Hollywood over-simplicity.  Silver Linings Playbook might be one or two steps closer to the former than the latter, but it’s all so effectively done that I don’t have the heart to complain too much.  (I’m reminded of the ending of The Natural, which was changed from the book.  In the book, Roy Hobbs strikes out.  In the film, he hits a home run and wins the game.  Yes, that changed ending might be more Hollywood than it is real-life honest, but damn if it doesn’t WORK.  The ending of The Natural is one of the greatest endings of a film ever.  I’m not suggesting that the end of Silver Linings Playbook is on par with that of The Natural, but I am saying that sometimes a movie needs to diverge from what might happen in real life.  I feel that is the case here.  Your opinions might vary.)

For me, I found Silver Linings Playbook to be a thoroughly enjoyable, engaging tale, and another strong piece of work from David O. Russell and his ensemble of actors.

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