Silver Linings Playbook | A
Certain movies are sprinkled with pixie dust, an indescribable concoction that infuses scenes with irresistible magic; Silver Linings Playbook is practically hand-rolled and deep-fried in the stuff. Graced by award-worthy performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the most talented and bankable stars of the moment, this marvelously eccentric romantic comedy demonstrates that smart, high-quality, mainstream entertainment for grown-ups has yet to — and hopefully never will — perish entirely from the earth.
Having stepped in to the big leagues with 2010's Oscar-winning hit The Fighter, the difficult, formerly cultish director David O. Russell has morphed into a helmer of accessible, medium-budget "prestige" pictures. He should surely extend his winning streak with this engaging, crowd-pleasing dramedy. Matthew Quick's 2008 novel provides a sturdy backbone for Russell to explore the sort of fractured family dynamics that are the hearty bread and butter of his best work. His devotion to chronicling neurotics borders on the neurotic, but this time he reins in the excess quirk that undermined I Heart Huckabees, while retaining just enough of the manic energy that made Flirting with Disaster a memorably off-kilter comedy.
Bradley Cooper drives the plot as Pat Solitano, an amiable working stiff who spent eight months in a mental institution after finding his wife in the shower with a colleague. Still struggling with bipolar fits and lingering anger over the incident, Pat is released to his parents' care, moving back into the attic of their Philadelphia row house and launching a program of positive thinking and self-improvement designed to win back his estranged bride Nikki (Brea Bee). He sets about rebuilding body and mind, jogging every day in grungy sweats with a garbage bag pulled over them, and reading all the novels on his high school English teacher ex's curriculum, to show her he cares about her work.
There are glitches. One night he wakes up the neighborhood with an outburst after realizing that Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms doesn't include a happy ending. Tranquility is hard to come by in this wired, NFL-obsessed household, where superstitious Dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), lives and dies on every Eagles game, in no small part because he's also a small-time bookie with his own gambling addiction. Pat seems destined to swirl around this familiar drain until he's set up on an informal dinner party date with the explosively unbalanced young widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is a powder keg of unresolved issues. She's uses sex as coping skill, which cost her a job, and she has an instant attraction to the equally damaged Pat. These two wounded kooks proceed to aggressively tug and push at each other, fighting to resist the innate sense that their mutual craziness is perfectly matched.
While we can previsualize the trajectory, it is the clever intricacy of the script, and of the consistently interesting choices made by the actors that keeps us guessing from moment to moment to moment. Russell is famously volatile; his on-set blowouts are the stuff of YouTube legend, but he has a phenomenal touch with actors, and he gets stellar work out of the cast.
Cooper continues to develop his craft, beyond just coasting on his movie star looks, and here lends troubled Pat an innate likability and openness that smoothes over the scarier aspects of his personality. His manic, free-flowing monologues are compelling, and Cooper has the charisma to make Pat's brutal honesty more sweetly vulnerable and funny than obnoxious.
Chris Tucker returns from self-imposed exile for a rare appearance outside of the Rush Hour franchise, and he proves a welcome presence, perfectly modulating his hyperactive shtick to play Pat's perennially escaping asylum buddy. De Niro, having lapsed into a lazy sketch comedy parody of himself for the last dozen or so years, does some of the best work he's done in ages, and it's a blast to see him enjoying the material for a change.
The movie belongs, however, to Lawrence, whose yummy cupcake voluptuousness is nearly unbearable. She is fierce, funny, wounded and wholly irresistible. It is an absolute knockout performance, one that reassures us that her career will endure long past her teen queen Hunger Games phase.
I can already hear the grumbling of certain high-minded grouches who may dismiss Silver Linings as mere entertainment, claiming that beneath a layer of self-conscious hipness it is beholden to the same tired "boy-meets girl" formula of a Reese Witherspoon time-killer. Sure, it is built on a used template of genre conventions, but the delivery of those ideas, through the performances, the camerawork, and the delightful script make them seem fresh as a spring breeze. While most movies try to impart a moral, the best of them can discreetly point us toward a better path for our own lives, and just maybe they can inspire us to squeeze every drop of joy we can out of this fucked-up world. There can be no ending happier than that.
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