(by Dustin Putman
"Silver Linings Playbook" is less about mental illness than the coming-together of wounded kindred spirits, but it nonetheless empathizes with its characters' afflictions rather than turning their problems into colorful traits of endearment. Written and directed by David O. Russell (2010's "The Fighter"), the film is destined to garner notice for the charismatic performances of Bradley Cooper (2012's "The Words") and Jennifer Lawrence (2012's "The Hunger Games") and the keen observational touch that paves the way for their relationship. What the film is not is some kind of hard-hitting exposť on getting over the loss of a loved one or learning to function with a few screws loose. It's a bittersweet romantic comedy, plain and simple, and, by the time it has added in subplots involving dance competitions and football superstitions, also rather unwieldy. Article continues below
Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) returns to the Philly home of parents Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver) after spending eight months in a Baltimore psychiatric facility for nearly beating to death the man having an affair with wife Nikki (Brea Bee). A well-meaning guy with a short fuse and a very possible case of bipolar disorder, Pat is hoping to reconnect with Nikki - that is, if the restraining order is ever lifted - and get his life in order. This process is easier said than done, seemingly insignificant things (like a tragic ending to Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" or merely hearing Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour," his wedding song) sending him off the deep end. It is at a dinner hosted by friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his controlling wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) that Pat first meets Veronica's younger sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow who has been having a touch time letting go. Unfiltered and just a little unhinged, these two semi-outcasts connect with each other in a way that others are having a hard time understanding. Though Pat isn't ready to say good-bye to Nikki, he finds himself entering a couple's dancing contest with Tiffany in exchange for her agreement to give his estranged wife a letter he's written to her. If he ever gets over her, he might just find that a much better match is standing right in front of him.
"Silver Linings Playbook" is based on the novel by Matthew Quick, and because it's a mature and reasonably intelligent picture that joins together romance with sports and a sturdy helping of humor, it could very well capture the same audience that fell for, say, "Jerry Maguire" fifteen years ago. The film is garnering Oscar buzz, but anything other than a few acting notices would be overinflating the movie's worth. Strip away the window dressing of its protagonists' offbeat predilections, and what we have is a predictable, even formulaic, love story, complete with all the meet-cutes, misunderstandings and falling-outs that have littered this genre for the better part of a century. It's also too long by at least twenty minutes, its enjoyment plummeting during an overextended sequence in the third act where the Philadelphia Eagles abruptly become an obsessive focal point, seemingly the whole ensemble showing up for a contrived session of superstitious betting on whether or not the team is going to win the next game. Self-indulgent in the worst way, this scene should have been stripped from the finished edit. It wouldn't have hurt to also abbreviate the dancing competition finale, which feels like it is from a different, more desperate film.
And yet, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are a pair worth watching. Cooper, who too often exudes a smarminess that gets in the way of his attempts at being likable, has transformed anew as Pat, in such command and filled with such vulnerability behind his rowdy, tough-guy actions that it's as if the viewer is watching a completely different actor than the one who starred in 2005's "Wedding Crashers" and 2009's "The Hangover." As Tiffany, who accepts her mistakes and is okay with them - she recently lost her job for infamously sleeping with virtually everyone in the office - Lawrence slips into her most adult role, to date, proving that she can just as convincingly portray a more worldly twentysomething as she can a teenager. Indeed, though there is a fifteen-year age difference between Cooper and Lawrence, the viewer doesn't once consider this or care. The casting works, both performers able to navigate pathos with humor, and vice versa.
Robert De Niro (2011's "New Year's Eve") plays Pat Sr. on a lower key than the actor's more manic recent turns might suggest, trying to bond with a son that disconnected from him years ago, while Jacki Weaver (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement") is touching, if underutilized, as mother Dolores, wanting to protect her son while fearing in the back of her mind that he might not be ready quite yet to face the real world. Also of note: this is Chris Tucker's (2007's "Rush Hour 3") first non-"Rush Hour" film appearance in fifteen years, since 1997's "Jackie Brown." He slides amusingly into the part of Danny, Pat's friend and fellow patient who keeps finding ways of escaping the mental institution he's been staying at. It's a small role, but a good one, neither showing up nor getting in the way of the main characters.
"Silver Linings Playbook" dabbles in darkness, but is tonally quite light, expressing a hope for Pat's and Tiffany's well-beings as they learn to keep going, looking forward and not back. Is it realistic to Pat's more deep-seated issues? Probably not, and the film is wrong to suggest that bipolar disorder can be cured - or at least subsided through the reciprocal love of a girl. Also, did he have these problems long before his marriage self-destructed, or was it the sort of movie-style illness that materialized conveniently out of thin air? If the ins and outs and little details don't consistently ring true, the emotions within "Silver Linings Playbook" do.