California Literary Review

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

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November 21st, 2012 at 1:46 pm

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Movie still: Silver Linings Playbook

Photo: JoJo Whilden/©Weinstein Company

Movie Poster: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by David O. Russell

Starring:
Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker

How long is Silver Linings Playbook? 122 minutes.
What is Silver Linings Playbook rated? R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

The Virginia Film Festival added Silver Linings Playbook to the lineup as its Centerpiece Film at the last minute. David O. Russell’s dramedy had been gently building buzz as it toured the major festivals, attracting the attention of critics with each screening. The VFF is a small festival even after twenty-five years, mainly due to the fact that Virginia, well, isn’t a movie state (though the organizers would have you know, parts of Lincoln were filmed here in the Commonwealth, so there). People travel from all across the state to attend the Festival, and often enough, they have no idea what they’re in for. (This year, a lady in line for Silver Linings Playbook thought she was seeing The Merchant of Venice for some reason. “My husband and I just noticed there were movies playing all weekend!” she said dreamily, “and I love the theater!” I traded glances with the people behind me in line, holding up my ticket to make sure I was in the right place. Silver Linings Playbook had been sold out for weeks. When I saw Black Swan a few years ago under stringent security, most of the older audience was pretty sure it was seeing a movie about the artistry of ballet. That was an entertaining screening.)

Aside from the clueless lady in line, the audience for Silver Linings Playbook is aware. There’s chatter about Russell’s directorial style: he is known to be prickly; there is a series of YouTube videos floating around of the director and actress Lily Tomlin shouting profanities at each other on the set of I Heart Huckabees while a weary and distraught Jason Schwartzman and Dustin Hoffman wander around in the background. There are excited murmurings about the next Hunger Games movie: these, more than Jennifer Lawrence’s heart-rending turn in Winter’s Bone, will now be her claim to fame. People are excited for Silver Linings Playbook, really thrilled to be in the Paramount (which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever seen).

I went in knowing next to nothing about the plot, which is for the better. The plot of Silver Linings Playbook is kind of inane. Matthew Quick’s book, one guesses, is able to neatly tie up loose ends without going overboard. Narrative style is more fluid in a novel, and authors pad trite plot devices with character development and lively prose (see also: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi). Much of the time, a movie just can’t offer the sort of character depth and development a book does. It’s totally implausible that a man recently released from a psychiatric hospital would find himself with the weight of his family’s livelihood on his shoulders as he performs in a dance competition with a recently widowed, slightly nymphomaniac young woman. These characters, from the superstitious, obsessive-compulsive father figure, to the Eagles-loving Indian psychiatrist, are not your average Philadelphians. They’re larger than life. What’s really interesting about Silver Linings Playbook is that Russell adapted a silly plot and over-the-top characters into a movie that absolutely does offer the kind of character development you want, and does, somehow or other, create a totally plausible, mostly enjoyable yarn.

Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) allows his long-suffering mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) to pull him out of inpatient psychiatric care the moment the courts allow (and against doctors’ recommendations). At home, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) isn’t sure how to accept his son again – he can’t quit repositioning the remote controls during football games on which he bets, and he can’t look Pat in the eye. Pat Jr. goes on morning runs wrapped in a trash bag so he can win back his ex-wife Nikki with a sexy new body. Unfortunately, Nikki has a restraining order against him. As the whole story comes into view piece by piece, it becomes clear that Pat needs all the help he can get to rebuild his life. His best friend’s deplorable wife (Julia Stiles) sets him up on an ill-fated date with her younger sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany lost her husband recently and uses sex to dull the pain. The two of them make a deal: if Tiffany communicates Pat’s undying love to Nikki, he’ll perform in a dance competition with her. Somewhere along the line, Pat Sr. decides to bet the family’s business on the dance competition. (Like I said, it’s a wee bit farfetched.)

Russell translated Quick’s small-time yet exaggerated story into a believable, smart, and sweet film, certainly, but what makes Silver Linings Playbook a work of genius is its brilliant performances. Russell, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his alleged asshole tendencies behind the scenes, squeezes every last drop out of his actors. Cooper, previously known almost entirely in comedies (though he was good in Limitless), somehow imbues a troubled, violent person with gentle kindness veiled by abrasive potshots. De Niro doles out one of his best performances in years; the man looks nothing short of elderly these days, and his fragility is gorgeously vivid. Lawrence puts a hard, ugly face on pain. She’s a woman who hurts so badly she tortures herself and everyone around her to make it easier. Two very broken people swirl around each other, each basking in the other’s palpable anguish, and eventually realize their respective hurts can combine to put them back together again.

Watching Lawrence verbally spar against Robert De Niro, you remember that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her chemistry with Cooper is odd and off-putting, but beneath the antagonism, both characters recognize foils of themselves. Russell took utmost care to give all the characters dynamic personalities; from Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher) to the police officer in charge of Pat’s restraining order (Dash Mihok), no one is two-dimensional. Nikki, who in some ways is the catalyst behind the entire series of events, is more of a mythical figure than anything else; though it would have been simple to make her an evil, conniving witch, Russell refused. The film’s cinematography and color scheme are pleasantly low-key, reflecting the chill of autumn and winter in Pennsylvania in a muted palette. These blue-collar people live unglamorous lives, and they’re proud of them.

The story isn’t particularly a happy one, and it’s uncomfortable to the point of cringing at times – but quite frankly, what love story goes according to plan? What profoundly broken person doesn’t make you want to laugh and cry at the same time? All you can ever hope for, according to that quote attributed to Dr. Seuss, is to fall in mutual weirdness with someone. Watching these two do just that is totally gratifying.

Silver Linings Playbook is generating Oscar buzz already, and its three leads deserve their nods. Russell, whose films are hit-or-miss, has himself a hit. It isn’t exactly a feel-good holiday romp, but for people like me, suckers for quirk and angst, it’s the perfect antidote to the usual rom-com. If you ever get enough of turkey and beer and football, do yourself a favor and check it out this season. You won’t regret a minute.

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