Director: David O. Russell
Rating R. Running Time: 2 hours
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver
Not since All in the Family has a current-day family-centered drama/comedy been so effective. Like its television predecessor, Silver Linings Playbook offers fascinating, complicated characters — all of them — whose interplay is utterly compelling.
Director David O. Russell, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2010 filmThe Fighter, based Silver Linings Playbook on a novel by Matthew Quick. He has said that he took on the project because it was personal: his teenage son has had mental health issues. The story centers on main character Pat Solitano (played by Bradley Cooper of The Hangover), a 20-something man with bipolar disorder and anger issues who has lost his job, his home and his wife after an assault on a man with whom his wife was having an affair.
He has just emerged from a mental institution, where he spent several months as a result of a plea bargain. Pat moves back home with his parents, Pat Sr. and Dolores (a perfectly cast pair in Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, who was nominated for an Oscar for Animal Kingdom), hoping to get back on his feet and to reconnect with his ex-wife, who has a restraining order against him. The Solitanos are a quirky, working-class group, obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, a team Pat Sr. and his buddies routinely bet more money on than they should.
While this very realistic group of family and friends is busy interacting, Pat meets Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence, the promising up-and-coming star best known for The Hunger Games), a friend's newly widowed sister-in-law who lives in the neighborhood and has problems of her own, including depression. She persuades Pat to compete with her in an annual dance competition, an event she's long dreamed of doing, in exchange for helping Pat reconnect with his ex-wife.
Mental illness is very tricky territory for entertainment productions. In fact, there are organizations (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA, among them) that award those that "contribute to the understanding of mental health and substance abuse," and call out those that don't. Surely Silver Linings Playbook will be up for one of SAMHSA's Voice Awards next year.
Both Pat Jr. and Tiffany are portrayed as complex, troubled souls, but, like the vast majority of Americans with mental illnesses, they also are regular people capable of getting help, having meaningful relationships and experiencing joy. And they're part of families we all know, that come in various shapes and sizes, and populate — with laughter and tears — our neighborhoods.
The performances here are all top-notch. De Niro is in fine form as a compassionate, funny, if manipulative, dad, who may have a few issues of his own. Weaver is fabulous, serving up "crabby snacks" and casseroles and trying to help her son out. Cooper isn't who you'd expect in this role, but he brings a freshness to it that helps save his character from utter darkness. And Lawrence is terrific — sexy, odd, smart, interesting and vulnerable.
According to news reports, much of the dialogue in the film was impromptu, urged on by director Russell, who hovered by his cast members during filming, suggesting lines and expressions and interactions. It worked. He made a movie that is a real portrait about a real family with real problems that's also entertaining. That is a rarity on the big screen these days. Be thankful that we have Silver Linings Playbook to go see over the holidays!