AFI Fest '12: 'Silver Linings Playbook' Scores with Great Performances
by Ben Pearson
November 4, 2012
When director David O. Russell's family boxing drama The Fighter had its world premiere at the AFI Fest in 2010, the audience realized we were being treated to one of the year's best films. Two years later, the same can be said for Silver Linings Playbook, Russell's newest movie that maneuvers between comedy and drama as well as a star running back threading through the defense on the field. His script provides a fascinating look at two people who might be just a little crazy, infusing football, family, and a classic movie romance with excellent performances from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro.
Cooper plays Pat, a former high school teacher who has spent the past eight months in a mental institution (for reasons revealed later) and whose new positive outlook on life allows him to find the silver linings in bad situations. His mother (Jacki Weaver) and father (De Niro) are cautiously optimistic about Pat staying with them, hoping that he can get his life back on track. When Pat meets Tiffany (Lawrence), a damaged but strong-willed young widow who mesmerizes him by being just as socially awkward as he is, the two form a friendship. Pat's singular goal is to reunite with his estranged wife Nikki (Brea Bee), but since she currently has a restraining order against him and Tiffany's sister (Julia Stiles) occasionally hangs out with Nikki, Pat uses Tiffany as a courier while Tiffany recruits Pat as her dance partner for an upcoming competition.
As the director and lone screenwriter on this project, Russell finds humor in rapid-fire dialogue matched with excellent performances. The banter between Cooper and Lawrence sizzles, and De Niro's character, a recently unemployed man who has a bookie business on the side, adds to the comedy with his superstitious habits during Philadelphia Eagles games. This is his best work in years, and the emotions he shows prove that he actually has passion for this material and wasn't just on set for the paycheck. Even Rush Hour star Chris Tucker shows up in a small role, and he's a surprisingly welcome addition to a great cast that also includes fine work from Anupam Kher as Pat's doctor.
Along with the comedy, Russell injects the film with a surprising amount of suspense. It may not be traditional Hitchcockian suspense, but that doesn't change the fact that we're still on the edge of our seats as emotional outbursts occur, waiting to survey the extent of the familial damage, or rooting hard for these characters to make the right choices to get their lives turned around. Russell knows what buttons to push in order to manipulate the audience, and though a lot of times people bristle at the idea of being emotionally toyed with, all films are technically manipulative and Russell succeeds at making that process an enjoyable one for his audience. It's no wonder this movie won the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival; it's a total crowd-pleaser that wonderfully pays off all of its setups.
This is easily the best performance of Bradley Cooper's career, and though The Hangover and its awful sequel were the movies that really gave him his current star power, it's roles like this one that will take him to the next level as an actor. Over the past few years, he's made a name for himself in films like The A-Team, Limitless, and even The Words, but this is the first time people he's really knocked me on my ass with a performance. Gone is his usual arrogant sense of swagger, replaced with a charm and affability that makes this character instantly relatable, even with all of his flaws. There's also a level of vulnerability that we rarely see from him as an actor, and Cooper deftly navigates the often-treacherous waters of portraying someone with mental instability; he gives a grounded and a very human performance, and even in his more outrageous moments, it never feels like he's reaching.
As great as Cooper is, though, Silver Linings Playbook will likely be mostly remembered for Jennifer Lawrence's terrific effort as Tiffany. Lawrence is for real, and while early parts in Winter's Bone and Like Crazy gave her the platform to earn roles in mega-budget franchise pictures, her work here made me think that we could have another Natalie Portman on our hands: someone who is equally comfortable taking on bold, independent narratives as she is in the confines of a studio blockbuster.
Detractors might make the case that her character here is just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but instead of whimsical personality tics or eclectic indie music tastes, Tiffany becomes Pat's center (in a zen kind of way) by providing him with some much-needed structure and discipline in his life through their dance routine. Structure and discipline are traditionally archrivals of the MPDG, and when Tiffany calms Pat during an incident in which he hears a song that could trigger a meltdown, Lawrence reveals believable empathy for his situation instead of the detached attitude the MPDG normally represents.
As with Ben Affleck's Argo, Silver Linings Playbook made me yearn for the days when films like this came out more often than just at the end of the year. This is simply solid storytelling on display, and Russell's handheld style is especially effective in the film's more frenzied moments, occasionally using propulsive cuts and wild camera moves to mirror Pat's unstable mindset. And though the movie surprisingly culminates with some unfortunately traditional sports movie cliches, it's hard to mind when such talented actors have us so invested in their world. Playbook is a classic love story wrapped up in modern day issues and an inspiring and emotional look at two broken people who might be a little crazy, but who also might be crazy about each other.