Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker
It’s not often that you encounter something truly original at the movies these days, particularly not in the ‘boy meets girl,’ romantic comedy genre, one of Hollywood’s most generic forms. But originality is exactly what we get from David O. Russell (director of Three Kings and The Fighter) in his latest film Silver Linings Playbook.
The originality starts with our unconventional, but incredibly engaging romantic pairing, Pat and Tiffany. Pat is bipolar and has just been released from a court ordered stint in an institution after he beat up a man he caught in the shower with his wife. He has moved back in with his parents and is determined to win back his wife, Nicki. Pat’s time in treatment has left him with a new outlook on life. He is all about positivity, “excelsior,” and finding the silver lining to the dark cloud that he is working through. Tiffany is a damages soul like Pat, though her scars are emotional rather than physiological, after losing her husband in a car accident. Both characters are frustrated, struggling to live with a support network that doesn’t understand them and a society that doesn’t trust them. But they understand each other, and they become friends.
We have never seen these characters before on the big screen, at least not presented in the way they are here. One of the great achievements of Silver Linings Playbook is that it removes the ‘otherness’ from mental illness. Through their characterisation, and some of the directorial choices of David O. Russell, the film encourages us to identify with Pat and Tiffany, rather than to identify with the other characters trying to deal with Pat and Tiffany – we empathise with them rather than merely sympathising. And in siding with the two supposedly “crazy” characters we start to see the insanity of the regular world. We notice the quirks, foibles and obsessions in other characters – some minor, some not so minor – which are deemed socially acceptable in a way that Pat’s and Tiffany’s are not.
Russell’s beautiful screenplay is brought to life by a series of really strong performances. In fact, Silver Linings Playbook became the first film in 31 years, since Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1982, to receive an Oscar nomination in all four acting categories.
Bradley Cooper is the real surprise. Cooper has been a movie star for a while now but has seldom been required to do much more than be charming and look handsome. His performance as Pat, a man struggling to deal with the unknown in himself, is a revelation, showing us something of his talent that I doubt many knew was there. Bipolar is all about extreme ups and downs, highs and lows. Pat alludes to the fact that even before he had been diagnosed, his mood swings had been something that had troubled and frustrated his wife. Cooper imbues Pat with a manic intensity, which makes his positivity every bit as intimidating as his moments of aggression. But the really impressive part of his performance is the way he, with the help of the director, manages to get you to switch between emotional responses very quickly. Pat doesn’t have a filter when he talks – as Tiffany notes, he says more inappropriate things than appropriate things – and this is the source of much comedy. But on a number of occasions you find yourself laughing at Pat and then, in a heartbeat, feeling really sorry for him, or defensive for him, or afraid of him.
As Cooper’s foil, Jennifer Lawrence is every bit as impressive as Tiffany. The film really comes to life the moment that we are introduced to her. Pat and Tiffany’s meeting at an awkward dinner hosted by her sister is a fantastic scene and a preview of what is to come as the writer/director has fun with these two characters not bound by social conventions. As I said above, Tiffany’s scars are emotional rather than physiological, and as a result she is not as confused as Pat, but she is much angrier. She contrasts a real strength and willingness to stand up for herself with an extreme vulnerability. She is a sharp and abrasive, but at the same time likeable character. Lawrence burst onto the scene in 2010 when she earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Winter’s Bone. In the couple of years since she has done some more popcorn-style movies with a supporting role in X-Men: First Class and, of course, her leading role in The Hunger Games. But this performance in Silver Linings Playbook really cements her standing as one of the best young actresses out there, and of the four Oscar nominated performers in the film, for mine it is Lawrence that is most likely to take home a statue.
But the real treat for me was the performance of Robert De Niro. One of the absolute greats of the American cinema, it seems like decades since we have seen De Niro in a film which is worthy of his prodigious talent – you probably have to go all the way back to the mid-1990s when he did Heat, Casino and Jackie Brown. In recent times he has been reduced to playing caricatures of his own persona, often in reasonably uninspiring comedies: there was the gangster in therapy in Analyze This and Analyze That, psychotic retired CIA agent in the Meet the Parents series and, the lowest point of all, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where his role as Fearless Leader saw him spoof his own legendary “Are you talkin’ to me?” monologue from Taxi Driver. Finally, in the role of Pat Sr, De Niro has not only been given something he can really sink his teeth into, he has been given the chance to do something different. Pat Sr. is a bookmaker who is devoted above all to his favourite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. He is superstitious to the point of being obsessive compulsive. He is willing to do anything within his power to not disrupt his Eagles’ juju, whether it is making sure the remotes are facing the right direction or making sure he has his lucky handkerchief. He is a loves his son, but lacks the knowledge of how to engage with him outside of the time they spend together watching football. It is a fun character, but not lacking in depth, and you can sense that De Niro is really engaged by in a way that he hasn’t been for some time.
I’ll admit I even really enjoyed Chris Tucker’s work in this movie, and that is quite a leap to make.
I referred to Silver Linings Playbook above as a romantic comedy, but I feel that kind of pigeon-holing really undermines the complexity and depth of this film. It is wickedly funny and at its centre is a relationship between a man and a woman, but it is also at different moments sad, uplifting, concerning, charming and poignant. It has been a while since I’ve loved a new film as much as I did this one. It is a beautifully crafted film that will really stay with you.
Rating – ★★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean