Silver Linings Playbook is one of the year’s most emotionally generous movies, a crowd-pleaser of a romantic comedy that also happens to be a gritty family drama about bi-polar disorder. If that sounds like an unlikely combination, writer-director David O. Russell deftly juggles such complexities in a movie that believes in the healing power of love—families, friendships, partners—for its anti-heroic and highly eccentric lead characters, played with comic pathos by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, surely headed for Oscar nominations.
Philadelphian Pat Solitano (Cooper) is sprung from a Baltimore mental hospital by his mother (Jacki Weaver) after a months long stay for delivering a near-death beating to the his wife’s lover, an incident which revealed his previously undiagnosed bi-polar condition. With a firm belief in “Excelsior” and that hard work will deliver a happy ending—a silver lining—in life, he sets out to win back his ex-wife (Bree Brea), from whom he has a restraining order, while moving in with parents Dolores (Weaver) and Patricio (Robert DeNiro), keeping their manic adult son on a short leash of medication and monitoring.
A chance dinner at the home of his best buddy (John Ortiz) and his shrewish wife (Julia Stiles) turns up Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a jaded, emotionally wrecked heartbreaker whose cop husband has been recently killed. “We’re not liars like they are,” Tiffany explains to Pat, and she has a habit of saying exactly what is on her mind, including explicit tales of promiscuity.
Their paths cross and re-cross and while Tiffany promises to get a clandestine letter from Pat to his ex-wife, she demands something in return—that he partner up with her for a dance competition. If you think you know where this is going you might, but it gets there in its own way, which includes honest therapy sessions and some frightening scenes of family discord that effectively depict the terrors of living with bi-polar mood swings and exasperated adult parents trying to put a family back together.
Cooper (The Hangover, The Words) digs into Pat’s neuroses with a newfound grit he’s never displayed onscreen. Here he is a live wire; an exposed nerve primed to explode; a filter-less and frightened social animal who, after hearing his wedding song in his therapist’s reception room, loses all control in but a moment. It’s a performance of such unpredictability and, at times, pain, that the film’s latter stretches, where Pat begins to pull himself together, are immensely affecting.
But Lawrence can likely claim ownership of this ensemble, a beaten-down beauty who has been dealt a bad hand; she’s the heart of Silver Linings Playbook, pent up emotions hiding beneath smeared mascara, performing with such authority that she even dominates DeNiro—and the entire cast—in a late picture confrontation. Her touching work here, voice sometimes quavering to choke back tears, is one of 2012’s screen acting highs. At 22 and with an Oscar nod already under her belt for Winter’s Bone while leading The Hunger Games franchise in her spare time, she’s got the movie business, world and perhaps even us by the tail.
Weaver gets the rock-steady role as the mother trying to hold the family together in a way quite different than her Oscar-nominated matriarch in 2010’s Animal Kingdom, but it’s DeNiro who offers strongest support as the obsessive compulsive and superstitious Eagles fanatic with his own rage issues, a comic character with a tragic flaw whose apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. DeNiro, often criticized for lighter work in his latter years, takes his working class patriarch role and delivers an unexpectedly emotional performance. And Chris Tucker provides additional comic relief as a ebullient patient friend.
What Russell does with the final sequence, a near fantasy reconciliation and healing of emotions and family, immensely gratifying.
3 1/2 stars.