Ensemble cast scores for manic 'Silver Linings Playbook'
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
With "Silver Linings Playbook," filmmaker David O. Russell is arguably trying to meld the root-for-the-under-underdog populism of his 2010 sleeper hit, "The Fighter," with the frank observation of marginalized dysfunctional (sometimes otherwise known as "quirky") characters that marked such earlier films as "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster."
Adapted by Russell from a novel by Matthew Quick, "Playbook" opens with protagonist Pat (Bradley Cooper) coming out of an eight-month stint at a mental hospital after a downward spiral that culminated in his violent assault of his wife's lover. Alone in his room, he pumps himself up with self-affirmations and condemns negativity. He's clearly manic and in no shape for the outside world, but his loving mom (Jacki Weaver) drives him back home to Philly anyway. There, within pretty much seconds of installing himself in the attic of his family home, he rockets a Hemingway paperback out the window ("The world's hard enough as it is!" he rages against the "negative" ending of "A Farewell to Arms"), gets into an abrasive exchange with his not-exactly-a-paragon-of-responsibility-himself dad (Robert De Niro), and violates a restraining order his estranged wife has taken out on him.
So far, so manic. But wait, there's more! Pat soon meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young, gorgeous, feisty widow who herself has had issues with depression, acting out, meds and all that other stuff. While Pat is so obsessed with restoring his marriage (which everyone else around him understands is over) that he can't see the potential gift in front of him, Tiffany is both sly and in-your-face about her determination to get Pat into her life. She sneaks up on him during his eccentrically outfitted neighborhood runs and flies off the handle when he responds to her like the basket case he is.
"We're not liars like they are," Tiffany exclaims to Pat about the "normal" middle-class couple whose dinner they just walked out on. "Silver Linings Playbook" is hardly the first movie to come on like "David and Lisa" on steroids with the erroneous observation that mental illness is synonymous with exquisite sensitivity and reflexive truth-telling. But that doesn't make it any less annoying in that respect. Also, while the fact that Bradley Cooper has precisely none of the physical characteristics one might associate with a Philadelphia-born Italian-American, that's not as much of a problem as is the fact that there's something innately uningratiating about his screen presence, which in the earliest scenes makes his character seem less like a very sick man than just an incredible jerk. In fairness to Cooper, by the film's final quarter, in which he has to pull it together for both himself and Tiffany at a dance contest that he's allowed her to rope him into, his performance has built enough strength that he manages to put across even more than he's asked, which is a testimony to his undeniable performing chops.
Performing chops help allay a lot of this movie's sins. De Niro's loopily sports-obsessed dad is one of his best roles in years, and he seems cognizant of that fact. As for Lawrence, you've probably read some of the plaudits for her, and for her in this role, already. Orson Welles once defined James Cagney as "a great displacer of air." Lawrence has gotten to the point where she can be called that: Every time she enters the frame, the atmosphere around her is charged. Which goes a long way in disguising the fact that her character is about as idealized as they come.
Russell deserves a lot of credit for some of his usual daring: A sequence in which Pat scarily melts down, as the Led Zeppelin song "What Is and What Should Never Be" dogs his every step, has real bite. And his willingness to spend time with his quirky characters' less ingratiating tics is commendable. His gift for oddball comedy is as sharp as it's ever been: A late-in-the-game scene where Tiffany schools Pat's family on why her presence in Pat's life has not, in fact, messed up the Philadelphia Eagles "juju" of Pat's dad is one of the most virtuosic comic ensemble scenes I've seen in quite some time.
Still, none of this can quite disguise the fact that when you come right down to it, "Silver Linings Playbook" is, in most respects, a pretty conventional romantic comedy, and that its two leads, as accomplished as they are, don't do much of anything here to compromise their essential movie-star qualities. Which is fine: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne didn't deny their movie-star qualities in "The Awful Truth," either. Nor did they even start to claim to, is the rub. "Silver Linings Playbook" is fun, sharp and sometimes moving, but it's not reinventing any kind of wheel.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.