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Film Review | Silver Linings Playbook

It may be a typically ‘inspirational’ Oscar contender, but David O. Russell’s mental illness dramedy has its heart very much in the right place.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
5 January 2013, 12:00am
Mad love: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper wrestle with their inner demons in this uplifting comedy-drama.
Mad love: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper wrestle with their inner demons in this uplifting comedy-drama.
 

These days, you can sniff an Oscar contender from a mile off. If your film focuses on major historical events/figures with sombre seriousness, tackles some form of disability or illness and generally allows for the actors to flex their dramatic tendons in the most showy way possible, you're in with a shot.

Director David O. Russell (Three Kings), previously a persona non grata in Hollywood after his on-set histrionics alienated him from colleagues, appears to know this all too well.

Recovering from a mid-career slump after 2004's awkward philosophical comedy I Heart Huckabees with Rocky-like boxing drama The Fighter (2010), Russell follows up the Christian Bale-Mark Whalberg shaggy dog story with a similarly scrappy - if ever so slightly manipulative - tale of common people fighting to overcome maddening obstacles.

But it's good luck that Silver Linings Playbook - adapted from Matthew Quick's debut novel of the same name - has a thick streak of comedy running through the drama, making it not only a more bearable, but also a more interesting ride through mental illness, depression and familial strife in middle-class Philadelphia.

Perhaps sniffing the project's Oscar-friendly potential ('Playbook' has already secured all the major Golden Globe nominations), Hangover star Bradley Cooper tears down his defences to play Pat Solitano, a former high school teacher suffering from bipolar disorder.

Emerging from an eight-month stint at a mental health facility after a violent episode involving his unfaithful wife Nikki (Brea Bee), Pat is keen to get better, and salvage his marriage.

But despite the best efforts of his long-suffering parents - Patrizio (Robert de Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver) - Pat is convinced that he can manage his illness without any pharmaceutical aid, which puts a damper on his hope to reach out to Nikki, who has since placed a restraining order on him.



But Pat's precarious existence is pushed into even headier territory when he meets his friend's sister-in-law, the attractive but equally broken Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). There is never any doubt that 'Playbook' is primped for success from its opening minutes - we are, after all, watching two of Hollywood's most charismatic rising stars making merry with a Pandora's Box of human emotions in a story that will elicit sympathy from even the hardest of hearts. 

But there's also genuine feeling here, which is not surprising when you discover an illuminating biographical nugget from the previously maligned David O. Russell: his son suffers from bipolar disorder.

Perhaps this is the reason why, at its best, 'Playbook' eschews the polished veneer that maims any award-friendly films of their artistic edge, with Russell shooting key moments with almost documentary-like loose camerawork.

It's also evident that he gives the actors plenty of room to loosen into their often conflicted roles, suggesting that he may have put his past as an on-set drama queen behind him (unfortunately, YouTube is not so forgetful, or forgiving).

No matter how crappy the films he starred in were, Cooper always brought an energetic charisma to every role, and seeing him redirect that towards a more vulnerable outlet is interesting to watch.

Much like Christian Bale's yo-yoing drug addict pugilist 'Dicky' Eklund in The Fighter, Pat is a slave to his mood swings, making him an unpredictable character who instantly ratchets up the tension - both dramatic and comic.

It then falls to Lawrence's Tiffany to provide the softening romantic foil to the 'hot mess' that is Pat... at least you'd think so. But 'Playbook' is banking everything on being a romantic comedy 'with a difference', and far from being a mellowed out saviour-figure, Tiffany turns out to be as much in need of a shoulder to cry on as Pat.

Much like a younger Natalie Portman, Lawrence, now a superstar thanks to her involvement in The Hunger Games franchise, manages to walk the fine line between being a desirable screen presence while also fooling you into thinking she could be your best friend.

It's an actor's trick that fits the role of Tiffany like a glove, as the leads' ambivalent romantic chemistry depends on that very same push-and pull-dynamic.

Russell's keen understanding of what makes his cast tick extends to the supporting players too.

De Niro, disgracing himself recently in phoned-in performances for disposable fare like Meet the Parents, thankfully plays a rounded human being once again. If his bumbling bookmaker doesn't reduce you to tears during a particularly candid - and rare - bonding session with his troubled son, you could very well be clinically comatose.

But perhaps the biggest revelation here is Chris Tucker - the former Rush Hour star and arguably the most annoying actor in the world, here employed as Pat's loony-bin buddy Danny. Thankfully, we get no shrill histrionics from him here, but a tender portrayal of a man who means well but could very easily succumb to his demons with the slightest misstep.

And come the nail-biting climax - involving a baffling mix of sports betting and dance which has to be seen to be believed - it's precisely this subtle understanding of how vulnerable it can sometimes be to simply exist that elevates Russell's psychological opus into something more than your typical - or worse, pretentiously 'quirky' - rom-com. 

The 'Playbook' may be gunning for the spoils, but its efforts leave us with plenty to enjoy in the meantime too.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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