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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Silver Linings Playbook

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: David O. Russell, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook is the strange name for what seems a sort of semi-screwball comedy for the new millennium: a smart and amusing movie felicitously co-starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jackie Weaver, Julia Stiles, and Chris Tucker in roles meatier than we expect and played probably as well as they could be. with great big dollops of joyous spontaneity, live-wire energy, bristling wit and just a touch of darkness.  It’s definitely one of the year’s best romantic comedies and Cooper and Lawrence one of the year’s shining romantic comedy couples, although I also think it’s being a little overrated. Hell, that’s okay, though. Movie romantic comedies have been so bad recently, that it’s encouraging to find one worth overrating.

Silver Linings Playbook was adapted by writer-director David O. Russell from a novel of (almost) the same name, by Matthew Quick, and it’s about Russell’s favorite subject: a dysfunctional family. Here the family, the Solitanos, live boisterously together with their dysfunctional friends and neighbors, in a sort of Philadelphia suburb — a likable but nutty community whose ailments and oddments include bipolar disorder (Cooper), severe depression and sort of loose morals (both Lawrence), gambling addiction (De Niro), adultery (Cooper‘s wife Nikki, as played by Brea Bee), a penchant for jogging while wearing a trash bag (Cooper), and — the most inexplicable and frightening of the various disorders — an obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles somehow getting into the Super Bowl.

At the core of the comedy in Silver Linings is the emotional condition of Cooper as Pat Solitano, Jr. — a performance that vaults him into a some kind of new serio-comedy stratosphere. Pat Jr. is an ex-teacher suffering from that aforrementioned bipolar disorder, who has undergone months of mental institutionalization after beating the bejeezus out of a colleague who was sleeping (and showering) with Pat’s wife Nikki (Bee). Sprung from the hospital, along with his gabby pal Danny (Tucker), Pat goes back to the house of his parents: his Eagle-loving bookie dad Pat, Sr. (De Niro) and his mom Dolores (Weaver, the terrifying mother of the Australian crime drama The Animal Kingdom). Also around: Pat Jr.s bro-pal Ronnie (John Ortiz), who has a bossy wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles), who in turn has a seemingly very available cop’s-widow-friend, Tiffany (Lawrence).

A nice therapeutic romance is on everyone’s mind here, especially Tiffany’s. Pat, Jr., unfortunately, is obsessed with somehow engineering a marital reunion with Nikki, a prospect than appears less than dim. It seems somewhat perverse and wrong-headed as well, since most of the male audience would definitely prefer Tiffany (or at least be aware than Jennifer Lawrence is the co-star). That’s, of course, the plot complication that keeps the film’s obvious lovers apart.

Cooper, who zoomed to stardom in the epically crass buddy-buddy comedy The Hangover, and Lawrence, who conquered the critics in Winter’s Bone and then zoomed herself in The Hunger Games, clearly are playing the couple who belong together, even as Pat Jr. remains stubborn and Tiffany (who has a reputation for a loose social life, and isn‘t above stalking Pat Jr. while he jogs) remains persistent.

Chemistry isn’t lacking here. Cooper plays Pat Jr. with a mix of obstinacy and nervous intensity and all-American schnook Dom, plus a phony bravado and a disguised vulnerability that belies the qualities he put into the unshakably self-confident stud he played in The Hangover. As for Jennifer Lawrence, she adds naturalistic comedy to her resume to go along with the mastery of naturalistic drama she showed in Winter‘s Bone and the heroic young womanhood she put into The Hunger Game. And she does it with a panache that justifies at least some of the critical mash notes she’s received for this movie.

Then there’s the best player in the movie, that acting titan turned post-Focker sitcom papa Robert De Niro, playing the meatiest and juiciest of all his sitcom papa roles. De Niro‘s Pat Sr., like his son, is a hothead, and he’s been banned from the Philadelphia Eagles stadium for fighting. But he still makes his living off pro sports as a betting-operation guy and as the plot thickens and the neighborhood begins to fill up with more and more colorful characters, Pat Sr. gets involved in a complex betting parley that involves both the Eagles winning and Pat. Jr. and Tiffany placing improbably high in a dance contest — something she’s asked the reluctant bipolar disorder guy to do as payment for her help in getting an illegal letter to Nikki.

This is all corny as hell of course — Strictly Ballroom crossed with Big Fan — but corny is okay as long as it keeps us laughing. De Niro, a master of dramatic improvisation, here shows he’s a master of comedy disguised as dramatic improvisation. He knows how to make us laugh (and to get us scared and make us cry as well). And so do does Cooper and so does, surprisingly, Lawrence, who seemingly can do no wrong the past several years.

David O. Russell doesn’t work often enough, maybe because he makes the kind of hybrid offbeat movies — these mostly dysfunctional family rom-coms, with hooks ranging from incest (Spanking the Monkey) to adoption problems (Flirting with Disaster) — that are hard to get financed. (He also does dysfunctional war (Three Kings) and dysfunctional boxing (The Fighter)). But Russell can do something very valuable, something that often seems a nearly lost art in movies these days. He writes smart, snappy, funny comic dialogue that we can also buy psychologically, and that the actors usually do with infectious verve and spontaneity. Russell also assembles remarkable casts — probably because they want to say his lines. In general he can (and does here), turn out the kind of adult, unsentimentally appealing and sharply funny adult entertainment that we could really use a lot more of. That’s what makes him a critics’ pet (and sometimes befuddles average audiences). He deserves it.

I don’t think that Silver Livings Playbook  — the title refers to Pat. Jr’s bipolar optimismn, which leads him to rail  against Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”  because it has an unhappy eninding — is the best movie around right now or the film of the year. Lincoln clearly is, with The Master a close second, and Lincoln also has the best script, and the best actors, playing the best dysfunctional congressmen. But I’m happy to see Russell’s movie, and happy to see De Niro as well, even in another sitcom Papa role. One hopes though that eventually Bobby D. will bank enough walking-away moolah in these Early John Goodman-style roles, and start to make more movies and play more parts like the ones he used to do in his age of Scorsese. Why should DiCaprio get all the dramatic breaks?

Then again, making people laugh — even at dysfunctional families — isn’t an unworthy occupation, as we learned in Sullivan‘s Travels. Neither is running book on the Philadelphia Eagles, though it might be grounds for institutionalization.

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ David Simon