Day 7 of the Milwaukee Film Festival featured the “members only” screening of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Free screenings are a big perk of being a member of Milwaukee Film and coming off a big win at the Toronto International Film Festival made this film a huge coup for the festival. And a very welcome surprise as they didn’t announce what the film was until one minute before the film started.
Based on the book by Matthew Quick, the film follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) as his mother (Jacki Weaver) checks him out of a mental hospital. Pat was committed after a violent incident involving his cheating wife and has been diagnosed as bi-polar, but committed to making a go of it without medication. And to win his wife back, despite a restraining order. As he makes a go of it back in the world, Pat also must come to terms with his father (Robert DeNiro), a bookmaker who’s obsessed with not messing with the Philadelphia Eagle’s juju and views Pat as a good luck charm, and deal with the allures of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an equally messed up character, they bond over what medications they’re taking in a dinner scene. Can Pat’s relationship with Tiffany heal both of them?
Sounds like pretty predictable stuff, right? Plot-wise, it is. But there’s more to a film than plot and David O. Russell infuses the whole film with wit, verbal and visual, character, energy, and a personal eccentricity. There’s no mistaking this for a cookie cutter romantic comedy, it’s kind of a blue collar screwball comedy mixed with the traditional romantic comedy trappings. It’s peppered with good and unexpected performances. Heck, Chris Tucker shows up and is completely charming and funny. More to the point it’s a romantic comedy that’s actually romantic and funny which is a welcome reminder of what the genre can be when done with skill and commitment.
A good deal of the pleasures of the film comes from just observing the characters. I can’t remember the last good performance by Robert DeNiro, but in Silver Linings Playbook he reminds everyone of just how capable he is. He’s a tough guy, but his toughness might be part of Pat’s problems and he realizes it, trying his best to bond with his son. Which isn’t to say that he isn’t also very funny, his OCD like tendencies are a predictable source of laughter, but DeNiro balances the two sides to make a very compelling performance.
Jennifer Lawrence also surprises. In her big roles to date, she’s tended to be the girl of few words who toughs out whatever the world can throw at her. While there’s still some toughness in her performance, Jennifer Lawrence gets to unleash a lot of words and shows a welcome adult vulnerability to balance her character’s exterior toughness. Even though Cooper is noticeably older than her, she never feels less adult than him or that their relationship is in any way inappropriate. Perhaps this is a preview of Jennifer Lawrence’s future career.
And then there’s Bradley Cooper who redefines himself. Up until now, I’ve always perceived him as sort of a douche, a frat boy with good looks and great clothes who never has to really work at anything. David O. Russell helped redefine George Clooney by diligently removing all of Clooney’s bad habits, and he works the same kind of magic with Bradley Cooper. Brilliantly, Russell reconstructs Cooper into an underdog, Cooper gets a bad haircut, a scar across his nose, and is dressed badly. And his triumphs are all small scale. The rest is all up to Cooper, who displays charm and a welcome vulnerability. Plus he and Lawrence have palpable chemistry which is indispensable in making a romantic comedy work.
I can’t remember what the last good romantic comedy was, a genre that gets churned out to often lackluster results. Silver Linings Playbook restores faith in the romantic comedy genre. It’s a real crowd-pleaser that earns the good feelings that it generates.