Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by:  David O. Russell.
Written by: David O. Russell based on the book by Matthew Quick.
Starring: Bradley Cooper (Pat), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), Robert De Niro (Pat Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores), Chris Tucker (Danny), Anupam Kher (Dr. Cliff Patel), John Ortiz (Ronnie), Shea Whigham (Jake), Julia Stiles (Veronica), Dash Mihok (Officer Keogh), Matthew Russell (Ricky D'Angelo), Brea Bee (Nikki).

There was a time when not all romantic comedies sucked. I’m thinking of the 1930s and 1940s, when the classic romantic, screwball comedies were made. It wasn’t that films like Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) or Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) to name just two examples told original stories that made them so special – it was that the dialogue in those movies had a musical nature to them, and actors like Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, etc knew how to deliver it to maximum effect. It is in this tradition that David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook fits into. In terms of plot, this is a standard issue romantic comedy – you know precisely how everything is going to play out from fairly early in the running time, even if the characters do not. But the dialogue is excellent – and the actors rip into their roles with the same kind of comic force that we don’t see very often. And the movie even finds some time for some genuine emotions along the way. It is probably impossible to recreate those screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s today, but Silver Linings Playbook comes as close as we’re likely to see in this day of age.

The film stars Bradley Cooper as Pat, who has just been checked out of a mental institution by his mother after an eight month stay. Something happened back then – a violent episode involving his wife – that led to his involuntary confinement. But he’s out now, says he is better, and hell-bent on getting his wife back. This is an unrealistic goal that everybody except Pat seems to realize. She has a restraining order on him and has gotten a divorce settlement, but Pat is determined that eventually, he’ll win her back. He’s been working out – obsessively – lost weight and is even reading the books she teaches to her English classes; to show they have common interests. His mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) is forever kind and patient with him. His father Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) has some of his sons same issues – just undiagnosed. Pat Sr. is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but has been banned from the stadium for his own violent outbursts – and is superstitious in the extreme about what rituals to follow to ensure the Eagles win.

Things change for Pat when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful young widow, with mental issues of her own. She is the sister-in-law of Pat’s best friend Ronnie, who because they have mental illness in common, Ronnie and his wife think they will have a lot to talk about. Like every romantic comedy, the two don’t like each other much at first, but soon they do in fact bond. Their shared loss, which is what drove each of them over the edge, binds them together – and Tiffany’s determination to enter a dance contest with Pat gives them something to work towards together.

The heart of the movie is the scenes between Cooper and Lawrence, both of whom are excellent in their roles. This is the role Cooper in particular has been waiting for – a chance for him to show he’s more than just another pretty boy actor. The movie makes good use of Cooper’s natural charming persona, but also allows him to stretch himself. He is very good at getting into Pat’s somewhat warped head as he tries to get better. For her part, Lawrence elevates what could have been a very standard role – that of the beautiful young woman who helps “heal” the main character. She has issues of her own, and is her own person, but her journey is more in support of Cooper’s, so it to her credit that she makes Tiffany into a fully rounded person. The movie is at its best when these two are by themselves, talking. Russell’s great dialogue moves at rapid fire pace. These two actors find a rhythm all their own in the dialogue, and make their scenes together the highlight of the movie. The supporting cast around these two are also very good – Jacki Weaver, best known for playing the warped matriarch in Animal Kingdom, plays the complete opposite this time – the kindest matriarch imaginable. And it’s good to have Chris Tucker back doing his usual Chris Tucker thing. It can be annoying at times, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen him in a movie, that to me, he was a welcome addition. The best supporting performance belongs to Robert De Niro as Pat Sr., a man struggling in his own ways. De Niro, who so often now seems to sleepwalk through his roles, here is excellent – a man struggling with his own demons, and also struggling with his sons – he wants to help Pat out, but just doesn’t seem to know how.

Silver Linings Playbook was written and directed by David O. Russell. Russell’s first four films – Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabee’s – were all exceedingly strange, and in their way daring. His last two films, The Fighter and now Silver Linings Playbook are more conventional – more easily fit into a specific genre. Yet both of these recent outings are excellent examples of their genre – that Russell, through the intelligence of the screenplays, sensitivity with the actors, and perfect timing as a director, has made better than most films of those genres. Yes, if you walked into the last 10 minutes of Silver Linings Playbook, you could easily conclude that this was just another romantic comedy – one that ends in the same clichéd way they all do. But how Russell gets there is altogether his own. I may wish Russell took a few more chances in his recent movies, but it’s hard to complain too much when the result is a film as entertaining as this.

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