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TORONTO — 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 well-received 2008 novel, the comedy in many ways 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 almost all the characters here, but this comes off as the affectionately observed foibles of real people, not calculated movie eccentricities.
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 surprised 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. In the most hilarious of the early scenes, as he’s reading Nikki’s teaching syllabus to be supportive, he wakes his parents at 4 a.m. to rant about Ernest Hemingway’s refusal to end A Farewell to Arms on a happy note.
Cooper gives filter-free Pat a desperation that’s both painful and funny, asserting his positivity and growth while at the same time emitting alarm signals. The actor’s work becomes even more appealing once Lawrence enters the picture as Tiffany. A young widow depressed since the death of her cop husband — and possibly before — she’s every bit as volatile and blunt as Pat and also tainted by her own dark meltdown.
Given the quirkiness of the humor, the pathos slowly generated by these characters is unexpected. The chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence 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 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 editors Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, 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 is working in an absurd, comedy-of-awkwardness vein, but he 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 his pension, Pat Sr. runs a small betting operation, which he hopes will finance a cheesesteak joint. His love for his home football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, is a consuming passion fueled by distinct OCD traits and governed by superstitions. Given that his father has been banned from the stadium for repeatedly starting fights, Pat wonders in therapy why his single violent episode is considered so much worse.
Pat Sr. is 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 an extremely touching moment. Australian actress Weaver (Animal Kingdom) is daffy and warm as Pat’s salt-of-the-earth mother, who frets about her son being able to keep it together.
One of the chief pleasures here is the incisive work of actors in even the smallest roles. As Pat’s best friend Ronnie, John Ortiz bristles with the stress of home, job, baby and controlling wife in Tiffany’s sister, played with cool command by Julia Stiles. Indian veteran Anupam Kher brings a nice needling manner to Pat’s therapist, who’s also a mad Eagles fan. And Chris Tucker drops in now and then as a nutty pal from the clinic, who seems quite comfortable with his tics.
But while the entire ensemble is sharp, their work would be nothing without two such deftly anchoring lead performances to bounce off. 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 here, which makes for rewarding comedy.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala; The Weinstein Co.)
Production: The Weinstein Co.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Dash Mihok, Paul Herman, Brea Bee
Director-screenwriter: David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, George Para, Michelle Raimo, Bradley Cooper
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Production designer: Judy Becker
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
No rating, 117 minutes
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