Silver Linings Playbook

 

While David O' Russell's foray into conventional drama with The Fighter was a richly satisfying knockout, it's a joy to see him back in the off-kilter comedy realm with the wonderful Silver Linings Playbook. Cheerfully yet poignantly exposing the struggles, anxieties, disorders and obsessions of ordinary people, this is a film as odd as it is charming. It brings out the best in a superlative cast led by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, both showing unexpected colors.

Adapted by Russell from Matthew Quick's 2008 novel, the comedy recalls the director's early brush with a screwy family, Flirting With Disaster. And Pat Solatano (Cooper) is a similarly driven central character to the one played by Ben Stiller in that 1996 film, just quite a bit more unstable. There's a degree of dysfunction in nearly everyone, but it comes across as the affectionately observed foibles of real people.

A longtime sufferer of undiagnosed bipolar disorder, former high school teacher Pat has spent eight months in a psychiatric facility on a plea bargain after a violent incident when he walked in on his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), having sex with their co-worker. Released into the care of his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver), he is determined to put his newfound hospital wisdom into practice.

"I'm remaking myself," he says, vowing to find the silver lining in every situation. Pat remains convinced this is the way to win back Nikki, who has filed a restraining order against him. Initial signs are not promising, however, as Pat reacts badly to the trigger of their wedding song (Stevie Wonder doing "My Cherie Amour") and gets manic as he tears up the house looking for their nuptials video. Cooper gives filter-free Pat a desperation that's painful and funny, asserting his positivity and growth while at the same time emitting alarm signals. But his work becomes even more appealing once Lawrence enters the picture as Tiffany, a young widow depressed since the death of her cop husband. She's every bit as volatile and blunt as Pat and also tainted by her own dark meltdown. The pathos slowly generated by these characters is unexpected, and the chemistry between them makes them a delight to watch -- their spiky rapport failing to conceal a mutual attraction.

Remaining stubbornly fixated on the absent Nikki, Pat ropes Tiffany into helping open communication channels by delivering a letter. In exchange, Tiffany insists that he partner with her in a dance competition, requiring long rehearsal sessions in her garage studio. The loveliest of these scenes is set to the melancholy waltz strains of "Girl From the North Country," sung by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, which typifies Russell's idiosyncratic music choices.

Working with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and editor Jay Cassidy, Russell gives the comedy an invigorating messiness. The action is shot and cut with the same nervous energy that hard-wires the two central characters. It's no mystery where their relationship is headed, even with all the clashes and mutual disappointments, but the crazy ways the film gets there feel fresh. Russell captures genuine vulnerability in his characters and their various degrees of imbalance. This pertains in particular to Pat's father, who shows that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Having lost his job and pension, Pat Sr. runs a small betting operation, which he hopes will finance a cheese-steak joint. His love for his hometown Philadelphia Eagles is a consuming passion fueled by OCD and governed by superstitions. It's a gem of a role, and De Niro hasn't been this alive and emotionally engaged onscreen in years. A scene in which he melts while conceding to Pat that he might not have been the most nurturing parent is very touching.

A chief pleasure is the incisive work of actors in even the smallest roles. Weaver (Animal Kingdom) is daffy and warm as Pat's salt-of-the-earth mother; John Ortiz as Pat's best friend bristles with the stress of home, job, baby and controlling wife, played with cool command by Julia Stiles; Indian veteran Anupam Kher brings a nice needling manner to Pat's therapist; and Chris Tucker drops in as a nutty pal.

But while the ensemble is sharp, their work would be nothing without two such deftly anchoring lead performances to bounce off of. Cooper brings enormous heart to a role that easily might have veered toward the abrasive, and Lawrence shows off natural comic chops that we haven't seen much from her. There's self-exposure and risk in both these actors' work, which makes for rewarding comedy.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 21 (The Weinstein Co.)
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver
Writer-director: David O. Russell
No rating, 117 minutes

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