‘Silver Linings Playbook’: Let’s go crazy

November 13, 2012

Feel-good movies about people with mental disorders – from “As Good As It Gets” to “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and beyond – face the same challenge.

They have to take the psychological issues they deal with – depression, OCD, bipolar disorder – seriously enough to avoid trivializing or exploiting them. And they’ve got to tell a story that takes the viewer on a ride that has them rooting for, commiserating with and being entertained by the central character.

That’s a challenge that David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” more than meets. Adapted from a novel by Matthew Quick, this film finds the laughs but also the pathos in this story of one man’s attempt to regain control of his life.

His name is Pat Solitano and, as played by Bradley Cooper, he’s just out of a mental hospital in Baltimore. As we eventually learn, he’s been hospitalized by court order, after beating the crap out of a colleague who was having an affair with Pat’s estranged wife, Nikki. Pat, a high school teacher, has used the time inside to start his own personal rehab program, including getting in shape and losing weight. (We hear about how much he’s lost but, thankfully, never see the fat Pat.)

But his self-improvement regimen – which includes reading all the novels on the syllabus of his wife, an English teacher – includes his determination that, if he can just follow the strategies he’s devised in therapy, he can win his wife back. And that restraining order she’s taken out against him? He’ll totally convince her to rescind it.

His parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jackie Weaver), are cautiously optimistic for their son’s recovery, less so about returning to his marriage. And they’ve got problems of their own: Pat Sr., having lost his job and pension, has turned to book-making. Oh – and he’s a hardcore Philadelphia Eagles fan, so rabid that he’s been banned from Eagles’ games because he got into so many fights.

Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow whose sister is married to one of Pat’s best friends. They strike a chord – discordant, at first, then gradually more in tune – despite the fact that Pat’s blunt affect seems to put him somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. As it turns out, Tiffany offers Pat an avenue to reaching out to Nikki – but she wants something in return: a dance partner for a couples’ competition that seems a lot like the silly “Dancing with the Stars,” minus the stars.

The film becomes a mix-and-match tale of Pat’s quest to reconnect with his ex-wife, his growing (but reluctant) connection to Tiffany and his rediscovery of his bond with his father. His father’s Eagles’ obsession eventually dovetails with Pat and Tiffany’s appearance at the dance competition in surprising and touching ways.

Russell, who adapted the screenplay, captures the sense of being off-balance in a familiar setting, with which Pat struggles. With abrupt cuts, sudden zooms and the turn-on-a-dime performance by Cooper, it’s intriguingly disorienting, a glimpse inside a mind struggling with itself to maintain purchase on reality.

Cooper, an actor who continues to show unexpected facets, shrugs off that “sexiest man alive” mantle, playing a guy who can’t seem to get in front of his own worst impulses. He’s endearing when he’s trying to fit in and be normal; you can see Pat struggling to grasp what “normal” is so he can do an acceptable imitation. His temper explosions can be funny or frightening; his efforts to clamp a lid on the feelings that roil his brain are moving.

But this is Lawrence’s movie, too, and, like Cooper, she shows us new layers of talent that she previously only hinted at. Tough, tender, snarky and smart – she makes this unhappy young woman real, even as the character tentatively peeks out from behind the emotional armor in which she’s sheathed herself, when faced with the possibility of happiness.

De Niro, always formidable as a combustible character, tamps that quality down with comic insecurity, playing a father who sees his own shortcomings – as a person and as a father – in his son. Chris Tucker, MIA for years, pops up as a comic presence, a friend of Pat’s from the hospital with his own take on Pat’s problems. John Ortiz and Julia Stiles are also good, as married friends of Pat’s with their own passive-aggressive agenda.

Russell has a way of transforming what should be clichéd stories – including “The Fighter” and this film – into something surprising and insightful. He lets the human condition reveal itself, rather than forcing it to conform to the story’s dramatic needs. Which makes “Silver Linings Playbook” one of the year’s best, a story of a journey back that earns its feel-good status, rather than manufactures it.

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