"It can still be a date, even if you order Raisin Bran."
In spite of his (well-earned) reputation as one of the most difficult directors in Hollywood, David O. Russell still manages to get big stars to line up for his films. The main reason for that is likely his impeccable record. With just six features to his name, I honestly can't think of a bad, or even mediocre, one among them. Which makes it all the more astonishing that his latest, Silver Linings Playbook, may actually be his best film yet.
The film opens with Pat (Bradley Cooper) being released after eight months in a mental hospital. The Philadelphia native attacked a man that was sleeping with his wife, and was sent to a hospital in Baltimore in lieu of jail time. Now that he's back in town, he's looking to get his life back together and win back his wife. He's living with his parents (Robert DeNiro & Jacki Weaver) and his refusal to take medication is making their efforts to help his recovery all the more difficult.
After reuniting with his old buddy Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), Pat meets Veronica's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany is a mutual friend of Pat's wife, and she agrees to help him correspond with his wife, circumventing the restraining order she has on him, if he'll agree to be her partner in an upcoming dance competition. Tiffany is recently widowed and has been using dance as a form of therapy, and hopes that it will yield similar results for Pat. But of course, things just end up getting complicated.
That's the essential through line of the film, but like most of Russell's films, there are multiple subplots, my favorite of which involved Danny (Chris Tucker), another patient that Pat was in the hospital with, and his many bouts with being released from and dragged back to the hospital. The film manages to be such an effective romantic comedy by shirking all of the traditional tropes of the genre. Pat establishes early on that he's not interested in Tiffany because his main goal is to get back together with his wife, and the film is much more concerned with showing Pat putting the pieces of his life back together, rather than on ridiculous romantic flourishes that can bury a movie like this.
Anyone that has ever dealt with mental health problems, anger, depression, loss, or any combination of those, will be able to immediately and fully connect with these characters. The film is based on a novel by Matthew Quick, and these characters all come to the screen fully realized and incredibly well nuanced. These are real people, and you will find yourself empathizing with and laughing along as they wrestle with the same problems that plague so many of us. The world of the film is so well lived-in and whole, it's easy to just jump right in and find yourself at home in it.
The film could be equally off-putting to anyone who has not dealt with a lot of these problems. I could very easily see your average person, looking for a standard, above the line romantic comedy, being repulsed by this film. If you don't like your characters with three full dimensions that include flaws and ugly truths, this is probably not the film for you. If you found yourself wrapped up in the romantic whimsy of a film like Punch- Drunk Love or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, however, you'll find a lot of to love here.
I cannot say enough good things about Bradley Cooper in the leading role. He is fantastic in a way I've never seen him be before. He brings a ton of emotional depth to his role, and he's not afraid to let his wounds show on screen. His performance is revelatory and I sincerely hope that he is not ignored in the end of the year awards season. Jennifer Lawrence is every ounce his equal in a role that shows maturity eons beyond her age. She's a true old soul, and her performance is wonderfully nuanced. She bears the mark of a truly great actress in that she gets better with every film she does.
A sincere, heartfelt welcome back must be given to Robert DeNiro for his performance here as well. This is the Robert DeNiro that I loved and admired for so long, and he has two scenes here that show he hasn't lost his way entirely in the dreck he's been wallowing in for the better part of the last decade. He's every bit as good as you've heard, and has a resonant quality that will stay with anyone that grew up with a father similar to his character. Chris Tucker is also great in his small role. It's nice to see him in something other than a Brett Ratner movie for a change.
The only sad thing I have to report is on Jacki Weaver. She is great in her scenes, but her part was so woefully underwritten that she is just given next to nothing to do on screen. She makes the most of her scenes, but I wish there was more meat to her character. She's just not given anything interesting to do, and I found her presence distracting since she always did next to nothing. This is 100% the fault of the writing, whether it be Quick's novel or Russell's screenplay, I can just imagine what she could have done with the character had it been fleshed out.
As I said earlier, this is not a film for everyone, but the people who connect with it will connect with it deeply. It's not often that characters can have such deep flaws & terrible qualities and still retain likability and give you a reason to root for them. Silver Linings Playbook is a true gem of a film that will likely get better with multiple viewings. It's a romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies, so gauge your expectations accordingly. I, for one, am over the moon for this film.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]