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TORONTO – To say the Toronto International Film Festival's 2012 slate has been dominated by literary adaptations is something of an understatement. On Saturday alone, “Cloud Atlas,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Much Ado About Nothing” (granted, a stage adaptation) all had their world or North American premieres at the fest. Oh, and add one more prominent title to that list, David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
A very loose adaptation of Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, "Playbook" finds Russell once again displaying his talent in pulling unexpectedly authentic performances from his actors. In this case, Bradley Cooper is the biggest beneficiary of Russell’s guiding hand. Best known for the “Hangover” films, Cooper delivers his most arresting work so far and should impress even his harshest critics.
"Playbook" begins as Pat (Cooper) gets released from a psychiatric hospital and put into the care of his mother (“Animal Kingdom’s” Jacki Weaver). The movie takes its time revealing why Pat was sent to the facility in the first place, but it doesn’t take long to show why he might not be ready for the outside world yet. Diagnosed as bi-polar, Pat’s social skills have become almost non-existent after eight months on the inside (which O’Russell harness to great comic effect) and he has a dangerous temper that can be set off by anything that reminds him of the incident that lead to his fall. Not surprisingly, his father (Robert De Niro) is skeptical his son is ready to return to the family home in Philadelphia. Pat seems intent on proving his father is correct. He becomes obsessed with finding his estranged wife and makes life difficult at all hours of the night for his parents. Of course, Pat’s dear old dad is no angel as he appears to have his own issues with OCD and anger management proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this household.
Pat spends his first few days home discovering he’s under the official watch of a local police officer (Dash Mihok) and attending court-mandated therapy sessions with a psychiatrist who isn’t afraid to push his buttons (Indian cinema legend Anupam Kher). Eventually, an old friend invites Pat over to dinner where he meets his buddy’s clinically depressed sister-in-law, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). A young widower who has put her family on edge because of her increasing promiscuous nature, Tiffany offers to hook up with Pat upon their first meeting. Pat is taken aback and turns her down, but it’s foreshadows the film's expected courtship. Russell breathes life into this conceit, however, through sharp dialogue and comedic situations that play out much more realistically than traditional studio pictures would allow. Somehow, Russell is even able to convince the audience that “Playbook’s” climax – Pat and Tiffany competing against professionals in a formal dance contest – fits alongside the picture’s darker storylines. And yes, it all somehow works.
While Cooper deserves kudos for his performance in “Playbook,” it’s Lawrence who absolutely steals the movie. Her portrayal of Tiffany is both fierce and tragic. She constructs Tiffany as a blunt and intelligent woman that is unashamed of her sexual dalliances even if her friends and family feel she’s just acting out. Tiffany is not a happy or pleasant person most of the time (she rarely cracks a smile), but Lawrence finds a way to have you rooting for her at the end. Lawrence has arguably impressed in every movie she’s starred in during her short big screen career, but her performance in “Playbook” deservedly ranks alongside her Oscar nominated turn in 2007’s “Winter’s Bone.” It’s not a reach to suggest her Academy peers may recognize her once more this January.
Russell is assisted by a number of strong supporting performances including De Niro (who delivers some fine dramatic moments), Kher (who challenges Cooper in every scene they have together), John Ortiz as Pat’s lifelong buddy and an unusually subdued Chris Tucker who pops in as Pat’s new friend from the hospital. The only relative disappointment is Weaver who simply isn’t given much to do.
Critics throw the term crowd-pleaser around to often these days (present company included), but based on the reaction from the audience at the Roy Thompson Hall Saturday night “Playbook” is easily a textbook example. Russell takes a dramatic situation that seems too heavy to play as pure entertainment and flips it on its head by making the everyday humor in a dysfunctional family fuel the film’s storyline. It may not be as deep Russell’s classic “Three Kings” or as dramatic as his Oscar nominated “The Fighter,” but it’s hard to imagine anyone else handling this material any better.
“Silver Linings Playbook” opens nationwide on Nov. 21.