It’s rare to find a mainstream American movie that doesn’t rely on formula to some degree. That’s one reason David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is so refreshing: we haven’t encountered these characters before, and this is a character-driven piece. They’re unpredictable and idiosyncratic, but recognizably real. Even the neighborhood cop doesn’t talk or behave like a stock movie policeman. What’s more, Russell has cast his film so well, and apparently fostered such a creative atmosphere, that actors we thought we knew deliver eye-opening performances.
I like Bradley Cooper but I never suspected he had what it took to play a man like this, a former teacher with bipolar disorder who’s trying to rebuild his life after an eight-month spell in a mental institution. He is a revelation, bringing to life a difficult character whose intensity is frightening at times. It’s his pursuit of “positivity,” always looking for that silver lining, that gives the film its title. (Russell’s script is based on a novel of the same name by Matthew Quick.)
I’ve been impressed with Jennifer Lawrence before, but she manages to top herself with this performance as a woman, widowed much too young, whose tough outer shell masks a fragile soul. She and Cooper relate to each other for unlikely reasons, but their connection is strong and credible. Her character is smart, funny, seemingly fearless, and ultimately heartbreaking. I don’t know what other 22-year old actress could have pulled this off.
Everyone is talking about Robert De Niro, who hasn’t had a role this solid in years. He plays a working-class Italian-American, well within his comfort zone, but there’s not a whiff of cliché about it. He’s a loving husband and father whose fixation on the Philadelphia Eagles informs everything he says and does. It’s the only way he knows how to communicate with his son. (Writer-director Russell has said that De Niro’s passionate commitment to the film upped everyone’s game on the set, and it’s easy to see why.) Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, and Julia Stiles flesh out a cast with no weak links.
Silver Linings Playbook is a difficult film to capsulize, which to me is a healthy sign of originality. It’s about family and trying to repair broken lives. Just as Russell’s last film, The Fighter, made vivid use of its Massachusetts setting as more than a mere backdrop, this one takes the same colorful approach to Philadelphia.
Many moviegoers are most comfortable with cookie-cutter films that give them what they expect. I didn’t know what to anticipate from Silver Linings Playbook, but I couldn’t have foreseen such an ambitious, emotionally powerful story. I have a feeling it will stay with me for some time to come.