Sunday, November 18, 2012

Upbeat "Silver Linings" shows few clouds


Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles
Based on a novel by Matthew Quick

A warm-hearted crowd-pleaser of a movie, “Silver Linings Playbook” attempts to tread the fine line between mainstream and indie film sensibilities, and ends up casting its lot with the former. Despite its trappings of unconventionality – mentally unstable protagonists, other kooky characters, an unlikely comic mash-up of football fandom and competitive ballroom dancing – it’s at heart a deeply conventional romantic comedy in both its structure and its ultimate message. That doesn’t prevent it from being perfectly enjoyable, but does diminish some of its long-term emotional resonance.

The story centers on Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a former high school teacher who’s just been released from a stint in a mental institution—a voluntary commitment after he walked in on his wife with another man in the shower and proceeded to beat the guy to a pulp. So yeah, Pat’s got anger management issues, which cause his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) some reasonable concern when he moves temporarily back into their house. But Pat also has a plan: to get and stay fit, physically and mentally, and to win back his estranged wife, Nikki. He calls it his silver linings playbook, though it might just as easily be called the Power of Positive Thinking.

The problem is while Pat’s playbook includes healthy activities like running, it also seems to include a fair amount of obsessing over Nikki and not enough time reconnecting with his family—especially his dad, an obsessive (possibly compulsive) Eagles fan who doesn’t understand why Pat won’t watch football games with him. Pat’s life only really starts to move forward once he strikes up a friendship with neighbor Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow still deeply depressed by her husband’s death. Eventually Pat agrees to become Tiffany’s ballroom dancing partner in exchange for her playing intermediary between him and Nikki, whom Tiffany knows through her sister (Julia Stiles).

Anyone who’s ever watched a movie with a love triangle can guess how this arrangement ends, though to its credit the film doesn’t get there by the most obvious or straightforward path. Cooper and Lawrence have an interesting chemistry that isn’t exactly romantic, at least not initially; it grows by degrees as their characters let down their prickly guards and come to understand each other. The roles are departures for both of them, and they’re both quite good at conveying two unmoored individuals who mirror each other in their abrasiveness, stubbornness, and emotional fragility. The age difference between them is surprisingly unobtrusive: Lawrence is one of those rare actresses who can play both older and younger than her actual age—which might be why she’s most often cast as teenage girls forced to grow up way too soon.

Cross-cutting against Pat’s interactions with Tiffany are his interactions with other people in his life, including his parents, his psychotherapist (Anupam Kher), and a fellow mental patient (Chris Tucker) who periodically pops into Pat’s life only to be whisked away just as quickly. These characters seem to be included primarily for comic relief, which they do provide in abundance, even if some of the humor feels a bit contrived. But none of these other relationships is depicted in enough depth to carry much emotional weight or provide any real insight into Pat’s process of self-healing. There's a briefly unsettling moment of intra-family conflict early on that hints at the possibility of deeper tensions between Pat and his father (as well as an inherited penchant for violence), but it rapidly melts away, never to return. For better or for worse, the movie’s rather casual in its treatment of mental illness. It’s very vague on what Pat’s precise ailment is, when he was diagnosed, whether he’s on or off his meds; even his therapy sessions are played mainly for laughs or as glorified pep talks. His real therapy is clearly his bond with Tiffany.

This isn’t to suggest that “Silver Linings Playbook” fails because it isn’t dark enough or because it focuses too much on the love story. Yet it’s hard not to contrast with David O. Russell’s previous films—particularly “The Fighter,” another uplifting tale of a man overcoming his demons that managed to balance a tough, sweet romance against a much deeper, better-drawn family drama and a portrait of addiction so poignant and yet so unsentimental it makes Pat’s illness look almost trivial by comparison. There’s nothing wrong with a feel-good movie about a man pulling himself up out of the darkness. But showing a little bit more of that darkness could have made the “feel good” feel more earned, and elevated a merely pleasant movie to truly inspiring.

Grade: B


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