THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK"
Movies about mental illness often make me cringe. It's clear that most films don't really understand it. This is why you so often see cliches, such as using the mentally ill for comic relief or portraying them as eccentrics who behave in overly-exaggerated ways. Take, for instance, Tourette's Syndrome. When you see a character with it, what is that person doing? Uncontrollably swearing or yelling inappropriate things, right? In reality, only about 10% of those with Tourette's exhibit this behavior. But it's “cinematic” and so filmmakers use it as a crutch. I could give more examples, but you get my point. The thing that's so refreshing about David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook is that it takes mental health issues seriously.
Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a young man who ended up in a Baltimore psychiatric hospital after finding his wife with another guy and subsequently becoming violent. Pat suffers from Bipolar Disorder and, when stressed, begins to exhibit irrational behavior. After getting sprung from the hospital, Pat returns to Philadelphia to live with his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Planning to find the “silver lining” in the whole painful ordeal, he intends to get his act together and win back his wife. Putting the past behind him isn't so easy though, because lots of things stress Pat out. One day, he is introduced to Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with deep-seated issues of her own. The two strike up an uneasy friendship. Tiffany agrees to help Pat make contact with his wife (who has a restraining order against him) if he will help her by participating in a dance contest she desperately wants to enter. In the process, these two troubled souls begin the process of healing themselves – and each other.
Silver Linings Playbook is very much an actor's movie. The cast members get lots of juicy scenes. What's most impressive – and what allows them to deliver the goods in a big, big way – is that the film portrays mental health issues in a more realistic than normal manner. (I don't have Bipolar Disorder, but I know several people who do.) Bradley Cooper does his best work to date as Pat, showing us the kind heart resting beneath layers of agitated thoughts and erratic behaviors he cannot control. It's a rich, carefully detailed performance. Cooper has solid chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence, who is equally outstanding. Tiffany is a young woman whose anger and grief have caused her to engage in reckless behaviors; she's acting out, knows it, and hopes to channel these things into something useful. Lawrence effectively captures all the mixed emotions Tiffany feels. Because the two leads are so good, it's very easy to become wrapped up in the Pat/Tiffany relationship. DeNiro and Weaver are great too. I especially like the DeNiro character. He's an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan who has all kinds of crazy superstitious rituals that he thinks will affect his team's success on the field. One of the most compelling aspects of Silver Linings Playbook is that Pat Sr. claims not to understand his son's mental illness despite engaging in his own set of obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
The story told in Silver Linings Playbook is consistently engaging, funny, and touching. This is the kind of picture in which two hours of running time whiz by in a flash. Where it stumbles, sightly, is in the third act, which focuses on the buildup to the dance contest. While still fun and uplifting, the plot falls victim to a few too many romantic-comedy cliches, up to and including the bit where one young lover runs through city streets to find the other and clear up a misunderstanding. There's nothing bad here, but when the film initially focused so compellingly on the characters' struggle to achieve normalcy amidst psychological torment, the Will they or won't they win the dance competition? angle seems a touch thin.
That misstep is tiny, though. Silver Linings Playbook is a genuinely good romantic-comedy because it has an overall ring of truth to it, not to mention a lot more depth than can usually be found in the genre. Cooper and Lawrence are thoroughly winning, making their characters relatable and immensely sympathetic. Both are grappling with challenges that make it difficult for them to be their best selves. They don't stop trying, though. There's something lovably endearing about that, and about the film itself.
( 1/2 out of four)
Silver Linings Playbook is rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
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