Before the start of Silver Linings Playbook (which I and my friends saw at the wonderful Vista Theatre), my friend leaned over to me and said, “I can’t wait. One more Django Unchained preview and we’ve got the whole set”.
Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell’s new upbeat film about downbeat subject matter (an appropriately bipolar approach to the thematic elements here perhaps), was probably not best served by its previews which advertised a movie that came across as a lighthearted romp of a rom com filled with stock characters and a formulaic plot (I almost became as depressed as some of the characters on screen at the thought of having to watch it). Even the title conjures up nightmares of Shirley Temple, Pollyanna and Little Orphan Annie. Though I can’t say the actual movie manages to completely avoid these issues, at the same time, for a rom com, it’s not really that lighthearted or even that funny with scenes that cut a bit too close to reality to entice laughter; the characters are far more complex that you might think; and the formula, well, yes, that’s a harder one to defend, though it must be said that Russell does some clever stuff here to make the medicine go down.
SLP (as it’s acronymically known) starts out a bit wobbly. I think for me that was due to Bradley Cooper (in the lead role of bi-polar and deeply, emotionally unstable Pat) being the first actor thrust upon us. Cooper acquits himself well enough in the role. He’s definitely not bad and at times rather good. At the same time, his matinee idol looks and a somewhat bland, slightly monotone reading of his lines was not a good sign. And when he acts opposite other superior thespians in the film, this flaw got magnified just a tiny bit. At the same time, as the story goes on, Cooper’s performance does grow on you, as does his character. He becomes more and more like Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward and even Joan Crawford, actors who substituted natural talent with hard work to such a degree that at times one couldn’t really tell the difference.
The real standout here is Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany (as fragile as that glass, perhaps?), a remarkable actress who came to real prominence in her Oscar nominated role in Winter’s Bone (and then proved not only could she act, she could also make a ton of money in the soon to be franchise The Hunger Games). She has something that most actors would die for, a pair of the most expressive eyes anyone could ever want, eyes that with a slight (very slight) flickering change of expression can careen from impudence, to pain, to fury, to wonderful comic timing (for some reason, this thought makes me think of the lines from Rebecca: “Most girls would give their eyes to see Monte!” “Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”). And she has palpable chemistry with Cooper, which don’t hurt.
She’s backed by a well cast supporting set of players. First, what is it about Boardwalk Empire anyway which seems to be the go to place now as the best television series to find the most talented fillers for smaller rolls (this time round Shea Whigham as Pat’s older brother). But more to the point, Robert De Niro as Pat’s father (it’s been awhile since he’s had a role this worthy of his talents) scores as a man with his own pain, as well as OCD and anger management issues, while Jacki Weaver (the monstrous “And you’ve done some bad things sweetie, haven’t you?” matron in Animal Kingdom) uses a kewpie doll voice to match a face constantly filled with worry in the role of Pat’s mother. In many ways, I think this is Russell’s real triumph here, the very accurate portrayal of people caught in the whirlwind of someone who is bi-polar, people who simply don’t know what to do, especially when the person who desperately needs help won’t help himself and even claims that he is fine and doesn’t need any help (and a sledgehammer wouldn’t convince him), people who can change from despair to euphoria and vice versa on the turn of a single line.
The script does falter a bit after the half way point as Russell has to set up various plot points to force the ending. This is where the formula charge has a certain validity. The way everything works out, as well as how all the various plot points come together, is rather familiar and predictable with few surprises. At the same time, Russell pulls some cleverness out of his hat here, especially in a scene in which everybody sets up a parlay bet, a scene so hysterically funny, so preposterous and ridiculous, you forget it’s covering up a formulaic turn in the plot and that in certain ways, it’s really not very believable.
I also have a few other regrets here. I strongly, and very pompously, suggest it would have been better if one of the best scenes, a montage of Tiffany and Pat dancing while in the background the haunting Girl From North County played in juxtaposition, probably came too early and would have worked a bit better closer to the finale. And the final dance number is a bit disappointing since it was choreographed more by the editor than by dancer Mandy Moore (this is one of the downsides to the fall of the studio system—up until the 1950’s or ‘60’s, Lawrence and Cooper would have been rehearsing this scene for ages before the actual shooting so that it could done with only a few cuts—the difference in effect is a bit of a letdown).
But at the same time Russell has created a deeply moving and often powerful movie here (one that, based on YouTube sensations staring the aforesaid director, makes one wonder whether part of the sensitivity here is due to some autobiographical element—but, of course, I really have no idea and would never venture to suggest such a possibility). One can’t deny the effect the ending has on the audience. It’s doubtful that few will leave disappointed.