Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
After exploring the bonds of a working-class family in “The Fighter,” writer-director David O. Russell returns to the kind of energized and dysfunctional characters that helped put him on the cinematic map with 1996’s “Flirting With Disaster.”
“Silver Linings Playbook” follows some of the same aspirational beats as “The Fighter,” but here the character striving for success isn’t a New England boxer but a suburban Philadelphia school teacher fighting to get his life (and his wife) back.
Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) walks around his antiseptic room in a state hospital as he prepares to re-enter the considerably messier outside world. In an act of exposition and self-encouragement, he reads aloud from a letter, assuring its intended recipient and himself that if he charts the right course he can remake himself with the inspirational assistance of true love.
We discover that his eight-month stint locked away derived from a messy incident involving his wife and an affair she had trouble keeping secret. But Pat has found it in his heart to forgive her; now all he wants is her forgiveness.
First step: getting settled and coming up with a plan. His parents welcome him back to his childhood room in their plain house. But they have trouble giving him the space he needs to find his equilibrium. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), has recently lost his job and is making flailing efforts at a nascent career as a bookie. Obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles to the degree Pat is preoccupied with his wife, Pat Sr. attempts to connect with his son by badgering him to sit and watch football. Like his son, Pat Sr. is well-intentioned, but he doesn’t know how to build a bridge from his isolation to others.
Pat arrives home a frantic mess, lacking a filter and calling out others for their shortcomings. He insists that he has a vision for his future, one of peace and silver linings, but he is a walking time bomb. One minute he recites self-help wisdom, the next he is throwing a Ernest Hemingway book through his (closed) second-floor window. He can’t abide the unhappy ending of “A Farewell to Arms.” Such is Pat’s dichotomy — he ostensibly knows what he wants, but he can’t quite figure out how to get there, and when he gets stymied, he snaps. He is his greatest support and worst enemy, a hero you root for while cringing and awaiting the worst.
Why “A Farewell to Arms” (besides the obvious correlation of love in a time of war)? Pat is busy catching up on the reading list from his wife’s teaching syllabus. It is both touching and disconcerting, like much of Pat’s motivations and outbursts. But he sees it as perfectly normal, refusing to recognize the gulf that has grown between him and his wife.
The needle scratches on the record accompanying Pat’s tango with self-honesty when he meets the gorgeous and edgy Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) at a friend’s house. The two connect immediately in a hilarious scene full of sexually charged antagonism. Tiffany is going through her own regrouping. Following the death of her husband, she engaged in a reckless bout of promiscuity that sent her life into upheaval.
While their similarities seem obvious to Tiffany and the audience, Pat wants to pretend that Tiffany is broken, while he is on solid ground. But the flirty, chastising and confident Tiffany won’t let Pat get away so easily.
She chases him through the neighborhood while he jogs and mildly coerces him into a rather unromantic date. But the bruised Tiffany is no desperate woman looking for salvation. She is seeking connection, and part of the way she attempts to do this with Pat is by holding herself up as a mirror.
As he tries to squirm from its glare, Tiffany makes a grand bargain with him — if he will help her prepare for a big dance contest, she will serve as a conduit for Pat to reconnect with his wife. The burgeoning romance seems inevitable, but Russell shows restraint, refusing to force the two characters into one another’s arms.
They both have obstacles to overcome to reach a level of intimacy, and watching them get there makes for a load of laughs and remarkable tension — both between the two and inside each of them. In one stirring scene, the two glide around a makeshift dance studio to the seemingly incongruous sounds of a Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan duet of “Girl from the North Country.” The song takes all the jokey mania from the first half of the movie and freezes it, then melts it. It is one of the most emotionally devastating uses of music in a movie this year.
Eventually the two must come to terms with their own damage and determine what they need to feel whole again.
“Silver Linings Playbook” plays with romantic-comedy conventions in a clever way. It is hard to tell whether Russell is mocking the genre or making it new. The movie, based on Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, dips into the romanticizing of mental illness, but still reveals the visceral pain and triumph of falling apart and piecing yourself back together.
The first two acts of the movie swim in a stream of mania, Russell’s camera spinning around the room, moving tightly into the actors’ faces, giving them no opportunity to hide their true emotions. But the third act slows, building tension and pushing the big reveal just out of reach.
The acting in the movie is honest and daring. Cooper, with his wild eyes and determined physicality, blends an excitable joy that walks the line of danger, and Lawrence layers her tough-girl act with desperation, hope and vulnerability. The two make for an irresistible on-screen couple, impossible to look away from. Both deserve Oscar nominations.
Speaking of Oscars, the great DeNiro is great once again here. Though the curmudgeonly character might have trace correlations to his work in recent films, there is none of the hokey mugging of his one-note Mr. Focker. In his eyes you see fear and love — frightened to admit his life and his family’s life is not what he hoped for yet willing to reach out despite it.
“Silver Linings Playbook” skips over some of the more complicated issues of mental illness and the difficult road to healthiness. Regardless, it delivers one hell of a stomach punch. As is often the case, underneath all of the well-earned laughter is a considerable amount of pain. And just when the pain becomes too great to ignore any longer, the release and relief of love sheds its light.