AFI Fest- Silver Linings Playbook, by Scott Nye
There comes a moment in Silver Linings Playbook, and I’ll be as vague as possible here, where two defining moments for our principal cast just so happen to occur on the same day. It’s that kind of wild thing that only happens in movies (and sitcoms), the sort of coincidence Paul Thomas Anderson was talking about when he wrote, “Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.” But here it is; it makes no apologies for it and neither will I – that’s the kind of movie Silver Linings Playbook is. It’s formulaic, it plays to the cheap seats, it’s a crowd-pleasing film in the middle of Oscar season (don’t you know movies can only be “fun” “escapism” if they’re about superheroes?), and yeah, it’s schmaltzy as all get-out. But boy is it a blast.
Right away, writer/director David O. Russell (adapting a novel by Matthew Quick) kicks things into high gear as Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) is being pulled out of a mental hospital far ahead of his doctor’s recommendation. That it’s Jacki Weaver, as Pat’s mother Dolores, doing the pulling will probably be of little surprise to those who saw Animal Kingdom, until it turns out her intentions are indeed quite pure. She just wants her son back and life back to normal, no small feat considering Pat landed in the hospital following a violent assault that caused his wife to leave him and sell their house.
The first half of this film has the kind of dizzying energy that Russell so refreshingly brought to 2010’s The Fighter, with shots clipped a second or two before they should naturally end, here reflecting the kind of manic energy going on in Pat’s mind. Characters seem to come zooming onscreen, only to storm out almost in the middle of conversation. And what characters. As in The Fighter, Russell has a real feel for these kinds of outsized personalities crammed together in a house, and while this cast is less outwardly weird (is there anything as great as Micky’s sisters?), they’re no less enthused.
Robert De Niro, as Pat’s father, has finally found a role in his late career that doesn’t call upon the skills he utilized as a younger man to make an impact. He’s as unencumbered here as he’s been in any number of lesser films, but with a gentleness underneath a boastful exterior. Pat, Sr. clearly suffers from some manner of OCD (you know it because Pat says “That’s OCD, Pop”), but De Niro doesn’t turn this into some sort of twitchy, overly-mannered representation; it’s a habit, an itch he can never quite scratch. He needs the remotes in a certain place, he needs his handkerchief in his hand while he watches the Eagles games on which he bets, and he’s convinced his son is also a good-luck token, which he passes off as father-son time.
That time is growing increasingly scarce as, in the midst of Pat’s chief goal of winning his wife back (a 500-foot restraining order isn’t helping matters), he’s taken up with local floozy, recent widow, and fairly unbalanced woman herself, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s using her connection to Pat’s ex-wife to leverage him into helping her with an upcoming dance competition. Oh yeah. Lawrence has received no small amount of consideration for a certain competition herself, and not without reason – stock though her character may be (manic dream girl, no “pixie” thank you), she’s a hell of a presence onscreen, bold and brash and not without a few scenes any actor would relish, and which she quite enthusiastically embraces. As good as she’s been in several recent films, this is the first time I’ve seen her really at ease on camera, truly owning her space in a dynamic, exciting way.
And then there’s Cooper. Smiling, brash, cocky Cooper. I’ve always liked the guy, always knew he could do the range of work he’s asked to here, so the surprise of his presence isn’t in the execution so much as the fact of it. In so many of these terribly quirky productions (and this certainly is that), the protagonist is portrayed by the most milquetoast of performers, guys without edge or interest to anyone. Cooper is all edge. When he talks about emphasizing positivity and finding a silver lining to everything, it sounds like he’s trying to sell something, not the least of all to himself. When he explodes into fits of rage, he’s genuinely dangerous. When he picks fights in the manner of a child, it’s still pathetic, but it carries the weight of a guy who has probably gotten his way through most of life, coasting past his mental health issues with good looks and a smile.
But all the while, there’s David O. Russell, shoving things forward with the grace of a speed skater, constantly pushing and pulling and sweeping the camera with the kind of enthusiasm typically reserved for action films, though this is just as much a piece of entertainment as any of them. It’s often very funny, touching in the small doses it requires, and sort of obligatorily romantic. It’s the rare film that really is like anything out of classic Hollywood period, a sort of lesser version of something Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, or Preston Sturges might have made about attractive people pretending to have quirky deficiencies, and much of the fun stems from their utter inability to connect until finally they have to. Like those films, Silver Linings Playbook is full of personality to spice up the formula, contemporary in its attitudes without being terribly standoffish about it, and just a lot of fun to watch.