“Silver Linings Playbook” – 3.5 STARS

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I can’t say I was all that excited to see “Silver Linings Playbook”. But since its release I’ve heard nothing but positive things about it. The reviews have been unanimously great and its popped up on one Top 10 list after another. And then along came awards season. “Silver Linings Playbook” made a huge splash with the Academy nabbing 8 nominations including one in every major category. Now it looks like The Little Engine That Could as it gains more and more momentum heading into Oscar’s big night. So what’s with my reluctance to see this film?

Well let me get this out of the way, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a good film. It’s a sharp romantic comedy that avoids the usual pitfalls associated with the genre today – that is right up until the end. It’s written and directed by David O. Russell which quite honestly was one reason I was in no hurry to see this movie. I am not a big fan of Russell’s abrasive and sometimes crass style of storytelling. But I have to hand it to him, even though we do get some of that here, Russell manages to tell a good story and his personal connection to the material is evident.

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While Russell wasn’t a draw for me, the cast certainly was. I don’t care for the raunchy “Hangover” movies or much else that Bradley Cooper has been in yet I’ve always kind of liked him. Here he gets a chance to really perform and he nails it. He plays Pat, a man who, due to his bipolar disorder, has spent eight months in a sanitarium. We learn that after catching his wife having an affair, Pat flies into a rage and beats the man to a pulp. His court agreement says he must receive treatment hence his stay in a mental hospital. He’s eventually released into the care of his parents with hopes of starting a new life and convincing his wife that he is cured. But there’s one problem, she has a restraining order which doesn’t seem to deter him one bit.

His parents are played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. Talk about perfect casting. Weaver is very good although most of her scenes put her in the background. I wish she had a little more to do. It’s De Niro that really stands out and this is the performance that people have been waiting to see again. His character is honest and grounded. He has some hilarious moments but he also gives us a look at where his son’s disorder may have originated. This was right up De Niro’s alley and some of the film’s best moments are when he’s on screen, particularly when he’s hashing out his complicated relationship with Pat.

But it’s a troubled young woman named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who shakes Pat’s life up the most. Since the death of her husband, Tiffany has struggled to keep her life on track. At first the two have no idea how to react to one another. This leads to some really funny moments including conversations about medications and what constitutes a first date. Cooper and Lawrence have a nice chemistry and I was impressed with how well they played off each other. I can’t help but believe that improvisation played a role in their performances because much of their dialogue flows so naturally (especially their more heated discussions). They are two fractured souls and watching them struggle to manage their lives can be both funny and crushing.

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It would be hard to justify criticism of any of these performances. They are that good. But that doesn’t mean this is a flawless movie. There are a few issues and for me they can be traced back to Russell. There is so much that he does right in the movie and I don’t want to downplay that. But I did feel it was a little longwinded early on and then there’s the ending. For most of the film things felt fresh and I thought Russell was plowing new ground. Then things take a conventional and predictable turn. Obviously to keep from spoiling things I have to dance around the details, but I saw the ending coming from a mile away. I kept expecting Russell to steer away from the mainstream course he was on but it never happened.

Now don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with these types of endings. But here it did nothing to set the movie apart from the rest of these types of films. And since that seems to be what Russell was going for (and accomplished for most of the picture), it’s a real head-scratching decision. But enough with the negatives. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a fascinating look at mental illness and its effects on relationships, family, and social life. It’s also a master class in acting, showcasing some of the best performances of the year. Obviously I don’t find it as profound as many do and I don’t see it as a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar winner. But it deserves praise for taking a difficult subject and nicely wrapping it in humor and emotion. That’s something many films have tried to do but failed.