ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: Silver Linings Playbook



Maybe we can lay the blame at the feet of Martin Lawrence from his "You so crazy" days back on his TV show Martin, but a word that has become constantly misused and thrown around far too much is the word "crazy."  For some reason, much like the words "epic" and "awesome," "crazy" gets used to describe and define far too many things that just aren't crazy.  It's become a punchline and a mild badge of honor.  In certain circles, it's cool to be a little crazy when the real meaning of the word speaks to legitimately troublesome and difficult personal issues.  

That's the challenging and endlessly interesting balancing act of writer-director David O. Russell's newest film Silver Linings Playbook.  We follow troublesome characters who are, in many ways, the real deal of crazy, yet they wouldn't be who they are, accepted, loved, and all, without their flaws and conditions.  In Silver Linings Playbook, you have crazy, raised by crazy, befriended by crazy, thinking crazy, advised by crazy, dreaming crazy, and in love with crazy all happening in the crazy city of Philadelphia, among crazy Eagle fans.  Yes, I just overused the overused word.  Just wait to see how it flourishes.

We start with our lead, Pat Solatano, played by Bradley Cooper.  Pat is a former Social Studies teacher just released on plea bargain from eight months in a mental hospital after he nearly beat to death the man he caught having an affair with his wife and fellow teacher Nikki (Brea Bee).  As it turns out, Pat is bipolar with many triggers to his restlessness, stress, and anger.  Without a job, a wife, or a home, Pat's taken in by his parents, the stalwart Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat, Sr. (Academy Award winner Robert De Niro).  The apple doesn't fall far from the tree it seems when we quickly observe Pat, Sr.'s obvious obsessive compulsive tendencies, superstitious beliefs, fanatical sports betting, and his own anger issues, which include a lifetime ban from Philadelphia Eagles games for repeated fighting and assault.  While Pat is loved by his father, it's been a long time since they've been close and the relationship is strained and frosty.

Stuck in therapy with Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), resistant to the medication, and checked on frequently by a local cop (Dash Mihok) keeping up up with his many restraining orders, Pat is blindly and completely heart-set on improving himself to save his marriage with Nikki, who, of course, doesn't want to see him.  No one has the heart to tell him the truth either.  He becomes a bit of a workout warrior as an outlet for his nervous energy and self-improvement.  When Pat reconnects with a buddy and his wife (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) who are friends of Nikki's, he meets the young widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman nearly equally filled with issues and problems as Pat.  She was married to a cop who was killed off duty and has spiraled downward ever since, turning to sex and depression.  Trading barbs, running encounters, and awkward dates, Pat and Tiffany gravitate to each other and hit it off.  When Pat agrees to help Tiffany with a ballroom dance competition (her outlet for self-improvement) in return for help to contact and win back Nikki, a complicated friendship develops and plenty of clashes and twists follow.

Make no mistake.  These folks have more issues than National Geographic.  Pat finds many losses to overcome.  Pat, Sr. is constantly seeking the right pulse for his rabid Eagle fan-dom and "ju-ju "vices.  Dolores tries to hold the family together.  Smack in the middle of that is the outside force of Tiffany and her return from her own ugly situation.  Even the little people we meet, like Chris Tucker's hospital friend and anyone who ends up at Lincoln Financial Field to watch some pigskin, has a little dose of crazy.

Much like other works by David O. Russell, including his outstanding The Fighter, Three Kings, and Flirting with Disaster, this film is incredibly character-driven with memorable performances across the board.  Robert De Niro, who has too often been reduced to dumb comedies (Analyze This and That, Showtime, New Year's Eve) or supporting heavies in substandard movies (Godsend, Hide and Seek, Killer Elite, among a long list) over the past decade, gets an excellent and meaty role to play with in Silver Linings Playbook.  

For the first time in what seems like ages, De Niro really "brings it."  Right beside him, Australian actress and Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) might have the most difficult role in the movie trying to quell and handle both Pats and the events around her.  She gives unseen depth to a smiling "everything's fine" wife and mother.

While this isn't quite One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or As Good as It Gets, this film will go down as Bradley Cooper's coming-out party as a respected actor.  Audiences forget that, above his resume of The A-Team and The Hangover series, Cooper is 37 years old, an Actors Studio Drama School-trained professional, and not just another People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."  He's remarkably vibrant as Pat in easily the best performance of his career, without parodying the Randall McMurphy's and Melvin Udall's that came before him.   Maybe he will earn an Oscar nomination more for his face than his perceived talent, but he deserves mention in an increasingly crowded field for Best Actor.

The same can be said about Jennifer Lawrence.  Rising way above the boring pigeon hole of being Katniss in The Hunger Games series, we forget that she too is a real actress, beyond the pretty face, and a former Oscar nominee from the extremely complicated independent drama Winter's Bone (see it if you never have).    Like Cooper, she brings layers and hues of vibrancy in a darkly comic character.  The change in Pat doesn't happen without the change in Tiffany.  Cooper and Lawrence play off of each other well and their chemistry buoys the film.

Despite the dark and messy problems and places these characters are in and come from, Silver Linings Playbook is an unashamed and unabashed comedy.  Adapted from Matthew Quick's novel, David O. Russell pulls no punches.  You are dealt the good with the bad in people and are challenged, just as Pat is, to find the positive silver lining in every situation.  With that mentality and development, the film truly flourishes into one of the most crowd-pleasing movies of the year.  It's a perfect date movie for romantic comedy fans and even the football guys that bring them to the theater.  You'll certainly laugh and you might just cry.  

No matter which occur (hopefully both), Silver Linings Playbook is a spark plug of emotional reaction and investment that, frankly, few movies this year have matched.  I know this keeps happening here in October and November, but every movie I seem to see tops the last one.  You will see this movie my year-end "10 Best" list.  That's a guarantee.

LESSON #1: THE TRIGGERS OF MENTAL ILLNESS-- Like I alluded to earlier, just about everyone in Silver Linings Playbook  has some sort of issue that arises from some form of catalyst.  Pat's bipolar illness takes center stage, but the football fan-dom of the entire family is a great example of a trigger to the wrong and improper side of people.  It's jubilant victory brings out the best of emotions, but the connecting obsession brings out the worst in equal fashion.

LESSON #2: PRESUMING TO JUDGE OTHERS BEFORE LOOKING AT YOURSELF-- Much like the saying "don't judge a man until you walk a mile in their shoes," our characters frequently find themselves trying to fix or understand each other to mixed results.  Fathers try to fix sons and vice versa.  Husbands fight against spouses over misconceptions, mistakes, and minutia.  One person with a label tries to compare how f--ked up they are compared to the label across from them.  Too often, the sword comes out before the mirror.

LESSON #3: MATCHING CRAZY WITH CRAZY-- With shades of "birds of a feather flock together," much of the fun in Silver Linings Playbook comes when crazy is paired with crazy.  The rapid fire jabs between Pat and Tiffany are highly entertaining, as are the family interactions in the Solatano household.

LESSON #4: THE DEFINITION OF "EXCELSIOR"-- Before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Marvel Comic founder Stan Lee, Star Trek, and the state motto of New York cornered the use of the term, "excelsior" is Latin for "ever upward."  Its use as either an adjective and interjection is more than appropriate for leading into Lesson #5.

LESSON #5: FINDING THE SILVER LINING IN ALL THINGS-- You will see that this film's somewhat obscure title has a purpose, many in fact.  Controlling mental illness, managing depression, dealing with stress, overcoming grief, and finding positives in both progress and defeat are all little victories and silver linings to those situations and elements that can't be fixed.  Our characters seek and learn this positives from the opening credits to the final shot.