‘I’ ON CULTURE
Silver Linings Playbook is the little movie that could. Opening in a season of very big movies, it has developed a large following despite being a small film that constantly teeters on the edge of deciding whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy. But in a year when most of the big-money winners were focused on large body counts, it’s a welcome relief to have a small movie that centers on one very strange family.
Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) is taken, too soon, from a mental institution by his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), where he’s been sent for beating the daylights out of the guy he found taking a shower with his wife. Even though she has betrayed him and has a restraining order on him, he is totally focused on winning her back, something that clearly is a sign of his instability. He winds up living at home with his parents, neither one of whom understands him. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), has lost his regular job and is a bookie. His life centers more on how well the local sports teams do than anything else; it is clear that the nut has not fallen far from the tree.
Young Pat is introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow, at a dinner thrown by a friend. She and Pat quickly seem to bond over the effects of different medications they have taken. She inappropriately suggests immediate sex; he considers himself married. They keep meeting, however, while running and eventually have one of the strangest dates ever on film. He discovers that she has been fired for sleeping with everyone at work, both men and women, as part of her desperate search for identity and is fascinated before there is another blow-up between them. He begs her to bring a letter to his ex-wife, and she agrees on the condition that he be her partner in an upcoming dance competition. Eventually, it becomes clear to the audience that the two are perfect for each other. It takes them a lot longer.
What carries the movie is the superb acting. Who knew Bradley Cooper could really act? As the very strange center of the film, he manages to be sympathetic even as he drives everyone around him crazy: storming into his parents’ bedroom at four in the morning to rage at the ending of A Farewell to Arms, falling apart everywhere when hearing his wedding song, being blunt to the point of sadism. Somehow, even though the character seems not to deserve it, the audience winds up rooting for him. DeNiro gives his best performance in years as the Philadelphia Eagles’ obsessed fan, and Weaver is great as the sane member of the household. Chris Tucker as Pat’s friend and fellow former inmate Danny steals most of the scenes he’s in. A special mention should be made of Anupam Kher as his Indian psychiatrist, who created a real person out of what could have been a stereotype.
Jennifer Lawrence, however, is the spark that makes this movie work. She is appropriately strange and winsome, far smarter than she seems. She has a wonderful scene where she turns all of Pat Sr.’s obsessive nonsense back on itself. Her dancing, a key element in a wonderful ending sequence, is great. Although the prime focus of the story is Pat’s search for identity, it is her journey that paves the way. Not until near the end do we realize that she has found a way to heal, and because of her own increasing stability, she is able to help in Pat’s transformation.
This is a small-scale film trying to compete for awards against films far larger. It doesn’t look for universal emancipation or universal salvation. It is a little film focused on a small group of, aside from their essential weirdness, regular people. And it works wonderfully well on that level. While both Pat and Tiffany at first seem too strange to root for, the exceptional performances of Cooper and Lawrence draw us in. We want them to get together, we want them to succeed in their strange dancing venture. Even though Pat seems to be fixated on his ex, instead of on Tiffany, we want them to find their own way.
It is a lovely film. David O. Russell has created an amusing, touching look at people whose needs bring them together. The top cast has been nominated for a lot of awards, and their work sparkles all over the screen. This is a very, very good movie, one designed for adults.