Silver Linings Playbook Review
A touching tale about loving and letting go; mental illness, obsession and addiction; and lost, troubled souls clashing with and comforting one another, Silver Linings Playbook was one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2012. Costing just $21 million and raking in tenfold in Box Office receipts, as well receiving significant award recognition - including no less than 8 Academy Award nominations - acclaimed writer/director David O. Russell's latest feature (after 2010's critically acclaimed The Fighter) is an impressive alternative romantic comedy drama in the vein of As Good As It Gets, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch Drunk Love, Garden State and Safety Not Guaranteed. Of course it's no coincidence that all of these movies have also had the theme of mental illness, with Silver Linings Playbook attempting to follow suit by injecting such troubled drama into an otherwise basic romantic comedy formula.
"You know, for a while, I thought you were the best thing that ever happened to me. But now I'm starting to think you're the worst."
Pat Solitano has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. He knows that he has bipolar disorder but he does not like taking his medication. Staying with his ageing parents, he is determined to get fit – physically and mentally – so that he can reunite with his wife, although he knows that it is their traumatic split that landed him in a mental hospital in the first place. Striking up an unlikely bond with another local outcast, widowed sex-addict Tiffany Maxwell, Pat sees her as a way of communicating with his estranged wife, who has filed a restraining order against him. But Tiffany wants something in exchange – she wants to participate in a dance competition, and she wants Pat to train as her dance partner.
Silver Linings Playbook is based on the bestselling debut novel of the same name by author Matthew Quick, but, whilst it takes its basic premise, characters, key events and story from the same, the adapted screenplay by writer/director David O. Russell does make some changes along the way, including the choice to give its protagonist bipolar disorder – rather than Traumatic Brain Injury – a change which reflects Russell’s own personal experiences with the disorder: his son is both bipolar and OCD.
Weaving in this added element shifts the dynamic with the lead character, allowing you to better understand why it would be difficult to cope with him, whether it be for a partner, or a parent, and making him much less the ostensible Memento-like victim of memory loss. Indeed it’s clear that with the fifty-plus drafts of the script Russell has been working on over the last five years he has perfected his study on living with these conditions – both for the person who has them, and for the friends and family who have to deal with that person.
Of course your script is only as good as the performers that you enlist to bring it to life. Thankfully Russell’s direction – and words – bring the best out of the chosen players, as is eminently obvious from the critical acclaim that they have received. With Oscar Nominations across the board – Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress (as well as Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing) – Silver Linings Playbook rides high on its impressive performances; between those and the interesting script changes this is certainly an unusual, alternative, romantic comedy drama for the ages.
“You have poor social skills. You have a problem.”
“I have a problem?! You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.”
Out of the core quartet of actors it’s probably Bradley Cooper who surprises the most. Back in the day I remember him being suitably irritating in the J.J. “Star Trek” Abrams’ TV show Alias, but it was not until 2009’s superb The Hangover that he really became well known. Unfortunately, since then, the roles have not been great and he has largely failed to distinguish himself – whether it be ill-advisedly taking the romantic lead in another insipid throwaway Sandra Bullock romcom, or playing the quintessentially arrogant Templeton “Faceman” Peck in 2010’s awful A-Team adaptation; reprising his Hangover role for the painfully repetitive sequel, or failing to quite step out of his comfort zone for the initially promising but still ultimately marginally disappointing Limitless.
Here, right from the outset, he shows us that he is playing a very different character. Neurotic, socially inept, oftentimes outright delusional, it really is quite disconcerting watching Cooper bring the bipolar Pat to life, and it does not take long before you forget the actor and become swept away by the broken character. Sure, I can see why Oscar-favoured Day-Lewis nabbed the Award for Best Actor, or why, even without Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington’s powerhouse performance in Flight would have probably bested this, but Cooper’s work here is still very impressive indeed, and it shows what he can do when working for a quality director on strong screenplay and with a decent character to play.
Jennifer Lawrence is, of course, the only one of the four to actually win the Oscar she was nominated for – Best Actress – an Award she had been working towards ever since her Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance in Winter’s Bone. She really has sky-rocketed since that role, what with a starring performance in the X-Men ‘prequels’, and the lead in The Hunger Games Trilogy and now, with a Best Actress Oscar behind her, she’s cemented her now-A-list status. Her portrayal of recently-widowed sex addict Tiffany is certainly powerful – in an unpredictable and passionate way that arguably even bests Cooper’s efforts in the lead. Again, credit has to go to the writer/director for bringing out the best in her, and it’s good news that she’s signed up to star in his next two movies as well.
“There’s always going to be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, by I like that. With all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself? Can you forgive?”
The two supporting nods went to Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro. Weaver was very impressive in Animal Kingdom and, although she does not stand out amidst the other, arguably more grandstanding powerhouse performances here, it’s perhaps this kind of understated portrayal that is perfect for the film.
It’s De Niro who truly surprises in the supporting ranks, however, turning in arguably his best performance in over a decade and a half, since the days of Heat and Casino. One of the greatest actors of all time, the latter end of his career has been far from kind, with a string of unfathomable collaborations with non-actor 50 Cent (Freelancers, Last Vegas) and a dire reunion with Al Pacino for the insipid Righteous Kill, and only a few mildly enjoyable offerings – having a couple of quality moments in the otherwise average action-thriller Killer Elite, and a hint of an interesting role in Red Lights – to remind you that this man’s name once carried some serious weight, as opposed to the near-warning-sign for disappointment that it has almost evolved into.
Russell truly worked wonders with De Niro on his role here, reportedly shooting his scenes in a variety of different ways, adopting various tones – degrees of levity or darkness to the character – from which he chose the necessary takes and edited them together into the end feature, and I think that this helped bring us our first true sight of the classic De Niro of old. He laughs, he cries; he gets visibly pained and visibly frustrated; he seems genuinely passionate and genuinely helpless – he may be older now (hitting 70 this year) but he can still tap into a whole lifetime of acting experience when pushed to do so, and Silver Linings Playbook achieves this more than any other movie from him in a long time. Let’s just hope he makes more sensible film choices in the future and perhaps makes this year’s 50 Cent movie his very last.
“I’m going to come over and break that camera over your head, and come back and interview you about what it’s like to have a camera broken over your head.”
Rounding out the cast it’s worth mentioning Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) for delivering a very un-Chris-Tucker-like performance as one of Pat’s fellow mental patient friends, who keeps escaping from the facility; famous Indian actor Anupam Kher perfectly chosen as Pat’s shrink; the increasingly popular Shea Wingham (Boardwalk Empire, Savages) as Pat’s successful – and full-of-himself – brother and Julia Stiles (What happened to her? Apart from her brief contributions to the Bourne movies she hasn’t done anything of note since her Shakespearian reinventions well over a decade ago – O, 10 Things I Hate About You and Hamlet) as the sister of Pat’s estranged wife.
Beyond the performances though, this remains Russell’s film through and through – it’s his work on adapting the story that gives it the impressive adult edge, and it’s his tireless efforts in the editing suite (alongside editors Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers) which see just the right tone captured; the perfect balance of stark drama and poignant observations infused into a touching, atypically romantic tale, championed by biting dialogue, and laced with streaks of sharp humour. You can tell that he had a personal stake in the subject-matter, but he manages to bring it to the fore without ever relying on trite heart-string-pulling or saccharine-sweet flourishes.
Whilst it may not quite reach the same level of sheer perfection as my personal favourites in the romantic-comedy-meets-mental-health-issues drama stakes (Garden State, Punch Drunk Love), it come damn close, managing to be immensely satisfying whilst quietly unpredictable, something which the genre does not always leave a great deal of room for.
“The only way to beat my crazy was by doing something even crazier. Thank you.”
One of the biggest sleeper hits of 2012, I am sure that everybody will be eagerly waiting to see what Russell gets up to next. The man who brought early career-high performances ought of the likes of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube back with 1999’s Three Kings, he now appears to be going from strength to strength, and – especially after the unparalleled success of Silver Linings Playbook – I suspect the world is now his oyster. Watch this space.
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