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I haven't read Matthew Quick's novel, but I can see why David O. Russell was drawn to the material, and it feels like both the most commercial thing he's ever made and the most personal. After all, Russell is as well known for his on-set difficulties with anger as he is for the films themselves, and I'm sure there are people who have worked with him who would be happy to call him crazy. "Silver Linings Playbook" is about embracing whatever madness drives us, and it certainly seems like Russell is a guy who manages to make the most of his gifts no matter what his demons.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) has been in a mental hospital under court order for eight months as the film opens, and it's time for him to go home. His mother Delores (Jacki Weaver) comes to get him, and right away, we get a sense that something terrible happened to land him in there in the first place. Pat is determined to stay out, to rebuild his life, and when he speaks of his wife Nikki (Brea Bee), it's apparent that he believes they are going to get back together. It may not be that easy, though, and in the flashbacks we see, their relationship ended with a shocking act of violence on the heels of a betrayal, and while Pat may believe he's got a future with Nikki, it's pretty obvious he's fooling himself.
The thing about portraying mental illness on film is that you're dealing with one of the base animal fears of pretty much everyone in your potential audience, and the more stark and unadorned you make that portrayal, the more likely you are to drive the audience out of the theater in panic. When I see a movie like "Clean, Shaven," where it feels like I'm staring into the eyes of genuine madness, I am rattled by the experience. "Silver Linings Playbook" feels completely authentic, but it is not designed to terrify. Instead, there is a deep sense of empathy to the way Russell portrays Pat's breakdown and his struggles towards recovery, and he only amplifies that once he introduces Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is dealing with her own grief over the death of her husband. Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) put the two of them together for an awkward dinner party/blind date, and it's immediately apparent that these two share a complete lack of conversational filter, something that draws them together instead of driving them apart. Pat is determined he's going to get Nikki back, though, and he doesn't want to do anything to jeopardize that. Tiffany, who needs a friend more than anything else, manages to corner Pat into helping her prepare for a couples dance competition.
What unfolds from there follows a certain formula, and I doubt anyone will walk about of "Silver Linings Playbook" bellowing about how amazing and original the resolution of the film is, but that's irrelevant. What matters is the energy between Lawrence and Cooper, and they are spectacular together. Cooper's never been this good on film, and I say that as someone who's been rooting for the guy since "Alias." This is the most fully realized character he's played so far, and he's heartbreaking in much of the movie. This is a guy who is constantly having to weigh every word, consider how each action is going to look to others, and who cannot trust himself to make the right decisions. He fights against taking his medication even when it's obvious that he needs it, and he holds onto delusion far past the point of it being pathetic. Even so, Cooper allows us to understand what drives the mania. It goes past being a portrait of a sickness to show us the human being who is affected by that sickness. I found myself particularly moved by the way he deals with his brother Jake (Shea Whigham) and his father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro, who hasn't been this good in over a decade), and I think the film suggests strongly that Pat Sr. has his own unresolved mental health issues that fall into the "acceptably eccentric" category, but which are no less real than the ones that plague Pat.
Lawrence should silence all dissenters with her work here. If you think she's just the overhyped star of "The Hunger Games" or the indie darling of "Winter's Bone," check out how she brings Tiffany to life. She is brittle and emotionally bare and barely able to hold herself together, and she is all the more appealing for the honesty with which she plays the part. It is tremendous work, and while she is undoubtedly a gorgeous young girl, the physical appeal is the least important part of what makes the performance great. This is a great refutation of the whole "manic pixie dream girl" idea because Tiffany is often a giant pain in the ass. It's not endearing to watch her freak out in public and almost get Pat beaten to death by an angry mob. Her pain isn't just something she mentions to connect her to Pat… it is an active part of every choice she makes, and many of those choices are terrible. She comes across in the end as a real person with regrets and sorrow and a lack of any clear sense of direction.
For a romantic comedy or dramedy, as I guess you'd call this film, to really work, you can't just sit silently and watch the mechanics of the thing play out. You have to get personally invested in seeing the two main characters find some peace and love with each other, and "Silver Linings Playbook" does that better than any film of its type that I can name in the last few years. It might be my favorite romantic film since "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," and I think that's because this film acknowledges just how hard we make things for ourselves, and just how easy they could be if we got out of our own way sometimes. It is a film that is filled with great supporting comic roles filled by actors like Chris Tucker and Anupam Kher, but it never goes for the cheap laugh over the honest observation. Like "Flirting With Disaster" or "Spanking The Monkey" or even "I Heart Huckabees," this is a film with its own cadence, its own particular sense of music, and it is a tremendous success for writer/director David O. Russell. Seems like he got out of his own way here, and the result should be nothing but sunshine for him and for audiences this holiday season.
"Silver Linings Playbook" opens in limited release this week and opens in wide release a week later.