In one of the decisive scenes in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Pat Solitano Sr. (Robert De Niro) strikes a parlay with his gambling friend while the rest of the crowd in the house — including his son Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Pat’s dance partner Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) — fire their opinions in high volumes. Comparing their volatility to a bundle of home-made bombs would not be inappropriate: Pat Sr. is banned from the Philadelphia Eagles stadium, Pat has recently been released from a mental health institution after nearly killing the man who was sleeping with his wife, and Tiffany is simply explosive — she curses, slaps and roars as harshly as any man in the room. It may be hard to imagine that this film is a comedy, let alone a love story between Pat and Tiffany. Yet as the title suggests, the film seeks to highlight the silver linings — tenderness, understanding and the little wonders — and makes them even more precious and heartwarming against the dreariness of life.
“Silver Linings Playbook” can be called a comedy-drama (or tragicomedy), a genre that blends humor and profundity. Though the line between comedy and comedy-drama is blurred, serious content usually drives the development in comedy-dramas but only serves to elevate comedy in the end. Recent successes in comedy-drama follow two directions. On one hand, films such as “Moonrise Kingdom” or “A Serious Man” find both comedy and drama in peculiar, exaggerated characters and their larger-than-life journeys. On the other hand, films such as “American Beauty” and “The Kids Are All Right” rely on everyday stories and derive laughter from awkward moments. The path of “Silver Linings Playbook” runs closer toward the second direction; however, with a personal twist by director and screenwriter David O. Russell, the film also contains hints of the farce common in the first. Russell reprises many of the characteristics that earned him accolades in his last feature film “The Fighter:” fast, overlapping dialogues; headstrong personalities and a calm, steady pace that leaves no loose ends even amidst the mayhem. He brings exuberance into ungainly circumstances, yet holds off from indie clichés or flashy fantasies — considering the fact that the movie contains a full dance number near its climax, the latter is no easy job. The pleasure of watching “Silver Linings Playbook” comes as much from witnessing the unabashedly idiosyncratic characters lose control as from Russell’s tight-roping above the chaos — it is precisely the control he has over the material that allows such a film to move but not overwhelm us. This grace has garnered a nod from the Academy; I would love to see him with a little golden statue this time, now that the young, unconnected Benh Zeitlin stands little chance with “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“Silver Linings Playbook” revolves around Pat, a simple-minded, impatient and dense man with blunt words and deeds. He throws a Hemingway novel out of the window at four in the morning and lashes out against the ending to his awoken parents; he wears a giant garbage bag while running to get fit; he rampages at the doctor’s office upon hearing a song that triggers his rage; he suffers from bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that saved him from going to prison. Beneath his apparent resoluteness is a vulnerable, frustrated soul who lost his marriage and normalcy. Cooper captures this paradox in an inspirational performance, the greatest virtue of which lies in its transparency: we can see his thoughts and struggles even when the camera pulls away and his voice is turned off. Previously best known as the star of “The Hangover” series and as People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” Cooper leaves behind his glamour and screwball comedic intuitions to create a character that is relatable, palpable and engaging, the brother-in-trouble we love to hate and root for at the same time.
Lawrence, too, holds nothing back. The first film to produce a nominee in every acting category at the Academy Awards since “Reds” over thirty years ago, “Silver Linings Playbook” smashes any doubts about Lawrence’s stardom: Yes, this girl can act. Though she could barely drink legally when she auditioned for the role of Tiffany, her maturity and power eclipse those of many actresses twice her age. Her embodiment of Tiffany reminds me of Anne Hathaway’s performance in “Rachel Getting Married” five years ago: ferocious, volatile and absolutely engrossing in every single detail. In fact, Hathaway was originally set to play the role but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, leaving Lawrence a golden opportunity to showcase her craft. Lawrence approaches it with laudable balance and precision: she is monstrous when her character manipulatively accuses Pat of harassment and icy when she tests his commitment to promise. In one of the most emotional moments, Lawrence lets her face go completely blank and still, a dangerously minimalist but smart move that is reminiscent of Julianne Moore in “Far From Heaven” or even Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina.” Lawrence adds a flavorful mystery to her character, whose guile and seduction leave room for imagination and compel the audience to search for answers. This makes her unforgettable.
Despite its smooth, light tone, “Silver Linings Playbook” juggles hefty topics: mental illness, adultery, violence and gambling all brand the film with a solid R rating. Refreshingly absent is sex, even though Tiffany casually tosses around the prospect of sex like a pimp negotiating a deal with her latest customer. Yet the most commendable aspect of the film is its easiness: it is an engaging film that brings chuckles and tears, neither of which come labored. Watching the film is a raucous ride: we experience the highs and lows, enjoy the views throughout, and arrive at an uplifting end. It is well worth your buck.