The word “dramedy” could have been coined with David O. Russell in mind. In his movies he’ll take damaged people in difficult situations and create heartfelt, poignant and sympathetic comedy. In lesser hands these stories would become banal and trite. Even when telling a true story, such as 2010’s The Fighter, he captured quirky characters in ways that made the audience both laugh and tear up, often at the same time. This quality is on display again in Silver Linings Playbook.
Former teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper) was an undiagnosed manic depressive until a violent breakdown, brought on by his wife Nikki’s infidelity, led to him being legally committed to a psychiatric hospital. After several months, his mother Delores (Jacki Weaver) manages to get him released and brings him home. Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), has lost his job while Pat was in the hospital. He’s more than making ends meet by being a bookie, though he dreams of opening a restaurant with his profits.
Pat has dreams himself of getting back with Nikki, despite the restraining order she’s taken out on him. He’s become fiercely positive, always looking for the silver lining in everything. To help his chances, Pat’s been working out to lose weight and get in shape, and he also decides to read the syllabus of novels from the English class Nikki teaches. That turns out to be a bad idea when he finishes Hemmingway’s “A Farewell To Arms” and tosses the book through a window because the heroine dies at the end. He has a way to go with impulse control.
He’s invited to dinner by his best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Ronnie’s wife Veronica (Julia Stiles). Veronica also invites her sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who was recently widowed. Tiffany is a broken as Pat, but she faces it with a fierce spirit. Initially Pat and Tiffany are like two porcupines, stabbing each other with barbed comments, but eventually they form a friendship. Tiffany knows Pat’s ex, and he asks her to deliver a letter to Nikki. Tiffany agrees, though she has a price. There’s a ballroom dance competition in December that she has always wanted to enter. If Pat will be her dance partner, she’ll deliver the letter.
This synopsis does not capture the carefully observed character nuances in Russell’s literate script, based on Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel. Russell isn’t a member of the Robert Altman School of Filmmaking, where you fill a movie with interesting people and let them bump up against each other. His films capture characters as they grow, change, and learn. It means that the movie is a treasure trove of fine performances.
Bradley Cooper had shown he could handle complex roles in 2011’s Limitless. The promise of that movie comes to fruition here. His Pat is like a shaken bag of broken glass, but he slowly develops an understanding of his brokenness. He is matched beautifully by Jennifer Lawrence. Only 22, she’s become one of the best actresses currently working in film. Even when doing a thoroughly commercial endeavor like Hunger Games, she breathes real life into the character and makes you care about them. In one scene in Silver Linings, she goes toe-to-toe with Robert DeNiro and comes out the winner. Her Golden Globe award for this role is well-deserved.
Speaking of DeNiro, this is his best role in a long time. He’d been sleepwalking through the Meet The Parents and the Analyze This series, and even though he was effective in Limitless, it wasn’t a fulsome role. You’d really have to go back to 1998’s Ronin for his last indelible performance. As Pat Sr., he’s borderline OCD and a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who’s trying to reconnect with his son through football. Jacki Weaver eradicates her Aussie accent and is completely believable as a middle-class Philly housewife and mother. The film also features a nice turn by Chris Tucker as Pat’s friend from the hospital who puts some spice into Pat and Tiffany’s dance routine, and Anupam Kher as Pat’s psychiatrist (and closet Eagles fan).
If you’ve ever complained that movies are too formulaic, this is the film you need to see. At first you might shake your head and wonder if this is really a comedy, but the film keeps bouncing in unexpected directions until it arrives at a wholly satisfying conclusion.