Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

“Silver Lining Playbook” is about two mentally unstable people who fall in love. If that sounds like a setup for an exploitative comedy, then you won’t be surprised to learn that this film from writer/director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) does contain many moments of levity. But it’s also a serious exploration of a couple of lost souls flailing to get through the everyday existence that seems so mundane to the rest of us.

Movie depictions of mental illness tend to fall into one of two categories: somber, dramatic portraits or giddy exaggerations. “Playbook” breaks away from the herd by showing its two main characters as authentic souls who recognize their problems even as they try to distance themselves from these issues and pass as “normal.” It goes a step further by compassionately depicting the family and friends around them, who strive to cope with their behavior and attending complications.

A great cast is headlined by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, with Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker in key supporting roles. All should get consideration from Oscar voters.

Cooper plays Pat, a high school substitute teacher who’s just been released (against doctor’s orders) from a mental institution after eight months. Apparently he walked in on his wife Nikki with another man and beat the guy to a pulp, and since then his entire world has become unglued.

Pat is convinced the alpha and omega of regaining is sanity is getting back together with Nikki. That’s a challenge because she sold their house and moved away, and has a restraining order against him to boot.

Cooper, known for smarmy comedic roles, is convincing as the motor-mouthed Pat. He’s the sort of guy who can’t help himself from obsessive behavior, but is smart and caring enough to immediately apologize for it afterward. At different points he tears up his therapist’s waiting room and accidentally elbows his mother in the face, but we sense there’s no belligerence in him.

De Niro and Weaver play his parents, long-suffering but still patient and kind to Pat, if a little frustrated. Pat Sr. is obsessed with his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, and wants his son to sit and watch the games with him, both for luck and for some father/son bonding. Dolores is the family’s center and glue, tough as nails in a passive sort of way.

Tiffany (Lawrence) pops up as the sister-in-law of Pat’s best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz). Her husband died recently and she just lost her job. Tiffany lives in a converted garage out behind her parents’ house, and shares Pat’s sense of being both embraced and ostracized by her loved ones.

At dinner, Tiffany and Pat exchange laughs about the debilitating effects of various psychotropic drugs – which is sort of the crazy person version of a Meet Cute. She immediately offers to sleep with him, but Pat refuses, committed to the notion of resuming his non-existent relationship with Nikki.

It’s a wonderful, charged, loopy cinematic pairing. Each thinks the other person is the more messed up one, which sets up a weird power dynamic. Tiffany is generally the aggressor, even going so far as to insist he practice with her for a big dance contest. Soon they’re spending all their time together, and their respective families fret about their troubles colliding and compounding.

Tucker plays Danny, a friend of Pat’s from the hospital who keeps getting released and unreleased, but hangs around long enough to offer some dance advice and help cheer Pat up. Anupam Kher plays Dr. Patel, Pat’s therapist; Julia Stiles plays Ronnie’s hectoring wife, Tiffany’s sister; and Shea Whigham is Pat’s older brother Jake, who nurtures a sense of superiority.

I appreciated the skill with which Russell and his cast adapted the novel by Matthew Quick. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a film of subtlety, wit and empathy for its characters. I did find myself having trouble completely embracing them and their plight, feeling like I was sitting back and watching them perform rather than becoming absorbed in their story.

Still, this is worthy, ambitious filmmaking – an oddball ray of sunlight peeking through the clouds.

3 stars out of four

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