I never cared much for Bradley Cooper, until the 2009 box-office phenomenon The Hangover. Cooper was part of an ensemble and not really the star of that film, but his very presence irked me because of a character he played over a decade ago on JJ. Abrams’ spy show Alias. I could never understand how his newspaper reporter Will Tippen could be so obsessed with Jennifer Garner and the murder of her character’s fiance, when he had secretary Sarah Shahi looking at him with hearts in her eyes every week. I know, how unprofessional of me, to judge and actor based on one fictional character, but this is Sarah Shahi we’re talking about.
Cooper successfully stepped out from under the shadow of the Hangover films with last year’s brilliant sleeper hit, Limitless in which we saw him play a character that expanded his intelligence, wealth and position in life, all thanks to one nootropic pill. The success of The Hangover films has awarded Cooper opportunities to pick and produce his own projects and like Limitless, the actor’s latest, Silver Linings Playbook, is a step in the right direction. Cooper has a unique way of finding realistic humor within the quirky and often damaged characters he plays and director David O. Russell is no stranger to stories about damaged individuals. From a screenplay he personally adapted from Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, Silver Linings Playbook is the serio-comic tale of of a boy and girl trying to return to normal when all their lives, they’ve been anything but.
Former high school teacher Pat (Cooper) has just got out of a psychiatric facility after spending eight months inside for violently assaulting a fellow colleague after catching the man with his wife. Loving mother Delores (Jackie Weaver), is eager to get him home, and although father Pat, Sr. (Robert DeNiro) is supportive, he feels his son may not be ready for domestic life again and could violate the restraining order estranged wife Nikki (Brea Bree) has against him. Though his stint in the hospital required him to be under heavy medication, Pat returns with great energy and enthusiasm, determined to “remake” himself, and become the husband Nikki always wanted him to be. Though he hasn’t seen his wife since the incident, Pat still feels they will be reunited and begins reading her teaching syllabus, to prepare himself for that day. Pat’s newfound state of mind is not without its ups and downs; he does suffer from tantrums and mood swings, like when he gets in an violent altercation with Pat, Sr. at three in the morning after he can’t find his wedding video, or breaking the attic window with a copy of ‘Farewell to Arms’ which he can’t fathom why it’s part of Nikki’s syllabus because it’s such a downer. Then there’s the fact that hearing Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherrie Amour” triggers Pat’s emotional impulses, because it’s the song that was playing when he caught his wife in the shower with her lover.
When Pat’s childhood friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) invites him over as the guest of honor, his over-bearing wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) isn’t too happy he’s come to dinner in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, but he makes a connection with her younger sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who is no stranger to mood swings herself. The last few years have been a roller-coaster for widow Tiffany, ever since her policeman husband was killed shortly after they were married and like Pat, she has a medicine cabinet filled with every psychiatric drug in the book. Tiffany’s reputation for being promiscuous isn’t what makes Pat initially want to steer clear from her. He just refuses to accept they have so much in common and sees Nikki as his future, not some girl who begins to crush on him. After realizing he’s not just another guy eager to take her up on her offer to sleep with her, Tiffany slowly inserts herself in Pat’s life and after he warms to her, she agrees to pass a letter off to Nikki. Her only demand is that he rehearses and participates with her for an upcoming dance contest. It’s fairly obvious where this pair’s relationship is headed.
Russell has an incredible knack for finding humanity and humor in some of the most absurd situations, but if it weren’t for the comedic timing and chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence, the story wouldn’t work. They are two beautiful looking actors, that the camera lens absolutely adores, making it difficult for your average moviegoer to accept that two people who look this good could ever have “problems”. Yet there’s a sweet awkwardness between them, little eccentric beats and the potential for emotional outbursts that are subtle and just under the surface in their respective performances. When Pat initially rebukes Tiffany’s advances, she becomes intrigued and annoyingly attaches herself to him. Yes, Lawrence is drop-dead gorgeous and you think Cooper is crazy for not immediately responding the way most guys would, but he doesn’t come across as dumb and clueless like his Alias character because there’s a sweetness to Pat’s pathetic beliefs that he and Nikki will be reunited and start a perfect marriage.
Tiffany could have very well been a leading lady whose volatile and unstable behavior might have been a major turn-off for your average viewer, but Lawrence has this uncanny ability to build pain and sorrow behind her eyes, even when she’s smiling. Tiffany manipulates Pat throughout the story and it’s often difficult to grasp whether she’s doing it for her own selfish reasons or because it may do him some good.
Tiffany’s manic behavior and very presence in Pat’s life doesn’t sit well with Pat, Sr., who feels the girl is pulling his son away when he needs him for one incredibly outrageous reason. It should really come as no surprise that Pat suffers from bi-polar disorder, since he obviously gets it from his father, who is hoping to build finances for a steak-joint operation through a small betting scheme. The man is so incredibly superstitious, that he feels he needs Pat sitting next to him at home during Eagles games, just so the team can win.
One of the film’s most hilarious moments is when Tiffany and Pat, Sr. have it out, as she makes an attempt to disprove his theories. It not only shows that Lawrence is a strong enough to hold her own against Robert DeNiro, but that the veteran actor is comfortable being upstaged by her. Pat, Sr. is perhaps DeNiro’s liveliest role in years; it’s been quite some time since he’s looked so relaxed and yet there’s also a fire in his eyes, illustrating his passion for the material. He shares some rather unique chemistry with Weaver as Pat’s doting mother and more importantly with Cooper. You get the sense that Pat, Sr. is trying to make up for lost time with his son and DeNiro’s role feels like a better match with Cooper than the one he too had in Limitless.
Silver Linings Playbook features a number of memorable supporting performances. Dash Mihok is the cop assigned to Pat’s case, trying to be sympathetic, while keeping everyone happy, while Anupam Kher is the therapist, turned “brother-in-arms” when it’s revealed he too is a die-hard Eagles fan. The film pushes a little too far from reality when Kher’s character not only becomes aware of a bet involving both Pats and that dance contest, but goes along with it, something a licensed therapist would never encourage. There’s also Jon Ortiz’s Ronnie, who reveals to Pat the pressures of marriage and raising kids, while Stiles plays his wife with a toughness that appropriately justifies his worries.
And then there’s Chris Tucker, who after starring in nothing but Rush Hour movies over the last fourteen years (and getting huge paychecks), returns to the screen in a minor role as fellow patient Danny, who pops in an out of Pat’s life as he’s (unofficially) released and readmitted several times over the course of the story. Tucker’s role exists as a device for comic relief, yet he’s still a breath of fresh air and necessary everytime the story feels as if it’s starting to take itself too seriously.
At times, it feels a little irresponsible that Silver Linings Playbook’s comedic story wraps itself up in psychoanalysis with characters suffering from realistic forms of mental illness. There are no doubt many individuals out there in treatment who might find such a quirky love story depressing and even painful. Russell has crafted a solid, entertaining little film, filled with likable characters and strong memorable performances, but at the end of the day it is just a fantasy, after all, nothing more.